OTR Interviews

Bolton: 'Embarrassing how weak' Obama's Russia sanctions are

Former US ambassador to the UN sounds off on president's sanctions on Putin's inner circle over Crimea and questions about the politics of missing Malaysia plane's pilot


This is a rush transcript from "On the Record," March 17, 2014. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, FOX NEWS HOST: The Malaysian airlines investigation zeroing in more and more on the crew. We're not finding out more about the pilot who was the support of a Malaysian opposition leader. And he was in court just hours before the takeoff as that leader was sentenced to prison. Any significance?

Former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton joins us. Good evening, sir.


VAN SUSTEREN: Any thought about the fact that the pilot was in court as this opposition leader was sentenced just a few hours takeoff mean anything to you?

BOLTON: Well, Anwar Ibrahim who is the opposition leader in question, when he was in public office actually was relatively friendly to the United States, relatively modern and pro-western in his outlook. I mean, I think that's one of the reasons why the current government of Malaysia has been after him. So, at least if being in favor of Ibrahim has something that the pilot really honestly felt strongly about, I don't think that's gonna take us very far at least in political terms. Maybe it has psychological impact. But of course, that also doesn't answer the question, was this port merely a cover story, a reuse to hide the true inclinations the pilot and the co- pilot may have had. These are all questions that remain unanswered.

VAN SUSTEREN: Should we read anything into the fact that apparently the opposition leader was sentenced, it was vacated, it was acquitted and this was sort of had gone around a little bit in the Malaysian court system, it was I think a sodomy charge he was convicted or reconvicted of. However, they call it. And he got five years for that, should we read anything into the process or the charge?

BOLTON: Well, I think that the prosecution was political from the get-go. I mean, this is a code word for saying that accusing Ibrahim of being a homosexual which in a Muslim society obviously can bring a pretty severe penalty. So, I don't think there was much doubt from the beginning of the prosecution that it was politically motivated, which is why the opposition resisted it so strongly.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right. Now, another part of the globe, President Obama today announcing sanctions against many of Putin's advisors. Not Putin himself but sanctions against 11, your thoughts on that? Is this getting tough on Putin or is this just nothing?

BOLTON: Well, this is embarrassing by how weak it is. But sanctioning 11 individuals after weeks of talking about freezing assets? Do you think these people left any assets in the United States left to be frozen? And obviously, by not sanctioning Putin himself, that's a signal right there. If the administration wanted to use economic pressure on Russia, it has plenty of possibilities to do so. Stop Russian banks from operating in the United States. Tell Aeroflot to stop flying here. But to engage in these kinds of symbolic acts, not against the big oligarchs, not against the people with real money whose wives want to shop on Fifth Avenue, but against basically political figures in the Ukraine and Russia. It's really a pathetic performance.

VAN SUSTEREN: So, on a 1 to 10 scale, 10 being the toughest and 1 being the weakest, how do you grade these sanctions in terms of toughness on Putin and having an impact on him to reverse himself.

BOLTON: You are right down in the decimal point level. Look, I think this says to Putin I continue to have the high cards. I'm gonna continue to press ahead. I'm winning here and I don't see anything from the United States or from the European sanctions also announced today that they are gonna change that calculus in Putin's mind.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right. If tomorrow Putin annexes Crimea, then what?

BOLTON: Well, then he has got the Crimea. I think he thinks he is gonna get more than that. I still believe he aspires to a government in Kiev over the whole country that subservient to Russia. I think partition. And it wouldn't just be of the Crimea. It would be of the pro-Russian populations in eastern and southern Ukraine more generally. I think partition is still plan b. So, my guess is the next step is that Putin says overwhelming pro- Russian sentiments as the Crimea referendum demonstrates. And the government in Kiev has to recognize that. He is now ready to negotiate. Maybe to have the provinces have more autonomy from Kiev, but in any event to get the kind of government he wants, I think that's what he is still after.

VAN SUSTEREN: Should we have seen this coming?

BOLTON: Absolutely. Look, in April of 2008, the Bush administration proposed bringing Ukraine and Georgia on to a clear path to NATO membership. And the reason was obvious. They were left in a strategic vacuum in central Europe between NATO and Russia. And what Bush wanted to do was to tie them more firmly to the west. The Europeans fearing the Russian reaction rejected the idea. I think Putin and the Russians took very careful note of that. They invaded Georgia four months after Europe backed away from the Bush administration proposal. And the Obama administration has had five years to consider the strategic significance of the European decision and the invasion of Georgia and what its implications would be for Ukraine. They have done nothing for five years. So, my criticism of the Obama White House is a lot less what they've done or not done in the past 30 days. It's what they have not done to get ready for this for five years.

VAN SUSTEREN: Does this have any impact on our continuing problems with Iran and Syria?

BOLTON: Yes. I think this is yet another demonstration of American weakness. We've been saying with respect to Syria for three years incorrectly that we have a common interest with Russia in a peaceful transition away from the Assad regime. That's never been the Russian interest. They want Assad in power. He is their only Arab ally at the moment. And I think in Tehran they must be looking at this performance by the United States and Europe on a European country watching Putin push us around and concluding that they can do the same in the nuclear negotiation. They broken through on economic sanctions, their nuclear weapons program continues almost unabated. I think they now see that there is real weakness in the west and they will press against it.

VAN SUSTEREN: Ambassador, thank you, sir.

BOLTON: Thank you.