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Hoping for a brighter future, can Ukraine overcome division and corruption?

March 26, 2014 at 6:19 PM EDT
President Obama urged Europeans to rededicate themselves to defending freedom in the face of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Meanwhile, Ukrainians say they’re ready to put the corruption of ousted President Viktor Yanukovych behind them. Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner looks at the range of challenges to Ukraine’s future, and whether its new leadership is up to the task.
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GWEN IFILL: President Obama met with European Union leaders in Brussels today and agreed to prepare possible tougher economic sanctions against Russia.

In a speech a few hours later, the president called on Europeans to meet the challenge of this moment and not to take their freedoms for granted, even as he criticized Russia’s leaders.

Here are some excerpts from his remarks.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Russia’s leadership is challenging truths that only a few weeks ago seemed self-evident, that in the 21st century, the borders of Europe cannot be redrawn with force, that international law matters, that people and nations can make their own decisions about their future.

Our own borders are not threatened by Russia’s annexation. But that kind of casual indifference would ignore the lessons that are written in the cemeteries of this continent. It would allow the old way of doing things to regain a foothold in this young century. And that message would be heard, not just in Europe, but in Asia and the Americas, in Africa and the Middle East.

This is not another Cold War that we’re entering into. After all, unlike the Soviet Union, Russia leads no bloc of nations, no global ideology. The United States and NATO do not seek any conflict with Russia. In fact, for more than 60 years, we have come together in NATO, not to claim other lands, but to keep nations free.

What we will do always is uphold our solemn obligation, our Article 5 duty, to defend the sovereignty and territorial integrity of our allies. And in that promise, we will never waver. NATO nations never stand alone.

It is absurd to suggest, as a steady drumbeat of Russian voices do, that America is somehow conspiring with fascists inside of Ukraine, but failing to respect the Russian people. My grandfather served in Patton’s Army, just as many of your fathers and grandfathers fought against fascism.

We Americans remember well the unimaginable sacrifices made by the Russian people in World War II, and we have honored those sacrifices.

We want the Russian people to live in security, prosperity and dignity like everyone else, proud of their own history. But that does not mean that Russia can run roughshod over its neighbors. Just because Russia has a deep history with Ukraine does not mean it should be able to dictate Ukraine’s future. No amount of propaganda can make right something that the world knows is wrong.

There will always be voices who say that what happens in the wider world is not our concern, nor our responsibility. But we must never forget that we are heirs to a struggle for freedom.

GWEN IFILL: Russia’s takeover of Crimea and other potential movements in Ukraine aren’t the only problems facing Kiev’s new government.

Tonight, chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner looks at the range of challenges to Ukraine’s future and whether its new leadership is up to the task.

MARGARET WARNER: This was Viktor Yanukovych’s private world, Mezhgorye, 340 wooded acres north of Kiev, with private navy, helicopter hangar and landing pad, golf course and exotic animal zoo, supported by a staff of 360.

Giving us the tour, Denis Tarakhkotlyk, who’s been securing the place since the Ukrainian president fled the country last month.

DENIS TARAKHKOTLYK, (through interpreter): People who elected him have come from all over the country to see how he lived. They said they heard about it, but couldn’t believe it, and were shocked to see it.

MARGARET WARNER: Inside the recreation building, a bowling alley, tennis court, billiard room, and trophy room in tribute to the man himself, all guarded by another trophy.

Down an underground passageway, past the fitness center, the main house, its grand entry lit by a chandelier documented to have cost $24 million. For Ukrainians, who earn an average of just $300 a month, this opulent private preserve has become synonymous with the system they wanted to smash, a symbol not just of official corruption, but of the rank venality of the wealthy, well-connected few, who acquired state property at fire sale prices and built vast business empires for themselves, in cozy cooperation with corrupt public leaders.

PAVLO SHEREMETA, Minister of Economic Development and Trade, Ukraine: Corruption is a cancer that almost eats the Ukrainian state from within.

MARGARET WARNER: Newly-appointed Finance Minister Pavlo Sheremeta has barely had time to move into his office, replacing pictures of Yanukovych with portraits of the more than 100 protesters killed during the four-month-long uprising in Kiev’s independence square, the Maidan.

Corruption here totally entangled business interests with government. How do you disentangle that at every single layer?

PAVLO SHEREMETA: Using my metaphor, we would do the surgery. It’s very important to keep the current public officials and administrators under very close public watch.

MARGARET WARNER: Keeping that watch, the many demonstrators who remain on the Maidan.

VOLODIMIR VIATROVICH, Maidan Activist (through interpreter): This is my friend. He was my friend from Orange Everyone, and he was shot here by sniper.

MARGARET WARNER: History professor Volodimir Viatrovich came here the second day of the protests, demanding an audit of government coffers. Now he coordinates the groups that remain to hold the new government accountable.

VOLODIMIR VIATROVICH (through interpreter): We are really very afraid of the fact that the new authorities that received power during the protests will renew corruption schemes equal to the former authorities. But we have to give them some time to work and show themselves.

MARGARET WARNER: Others on this square-turned-tent city aren’t quite as patient; 23-year-old Dmitro Lutsk, a member of a self-defense force, predicts a second uprising if the new government doesn’t deliver.

MAN (through interpreter): We didn’t have that influence before, but we do now. We know what we’re fighting for.

MARGARET WARNER: Dmitry Chesnokov, who keeps guard at night, says he just wants peace and calm. But when talk turns to Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea, his mood swiftly turns.

DMITRY CHESNOKOV: I want the death for them, for the Russians too. I want to get them — them just what happened in Chechnya. I want to kill them, really.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, with Crimea gone, the Kiev government faces a new security threat: a large Russian force massed on Ukraine’s eastern border, which former Minister of Defense Anatoliy Grytsenko sees in the most menacing terms.

ANATOLIY GRYTSENKO, Former Minister of Defense, Ukraine: We all must understand Putin equals Hitler. He’s crazy. If that person, Mr. Putin, is crazy, then we can expect everything any time.

MARGARET WARNER: Grytsenko says this new government, despite its badly depleted military, could still defend the country with the right sort of defense leadership and robust, lethal military aid from U.S. and Britain.

ANATOLIY GRYTSENKO: Those countries back in 1994 ensured security guarantees for Ukraine when we had given up our nuclear weapons. Now we see only, sorry, blah, blah, blah. With all respect to the economic, diplomatic, information means, sanctions, et cetera, it doesn’t work.

MARGARET WARNER: Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk has asked the U.S. and NATO for weapons and ammunition, among other things.

But U.S. Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt says Ukraine’s military is irretrievably outmatched by the honed Russian force that took Crimea.

GEOFFREY PYATT, U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine: They moved swiftly with overwhelming force to defeat the Ukrainians. There is no military answer to that.

In the short term, there is nothing that we can do in terms of military involvement or military assistance that’s going to change the basic realities of geography and the balance of power between Ukraine and Russia.

MARGARET WARNER: What the U.S. can do for Ukraine, says Pyatt, is help it with long-term economic development. And he sees great promise there.

GEOFFREY PYATT: You have got a border with four E.U. member states. You have got fabulous human resources, agricultural resources, shale gas. What Ukraine has suffered from is bad governance. And this revolution of dignity is an opportunity to correct that.

MARGARET WARNER: But Ukraine’s economy is in as nearly ragged shape as its forces, with tens of billions in foreign debts coming due, its treasury nearly empty, and the months of unrest and uncertainty freezing much needed foreign investment. Many restaurants in Kiev sit half-empty.

This has put the new government in a race against time that Kyiv Post deputy editor Katya Gorchinskaya isn’t sure it’s equipped to win, coming into office just four days before Russia invaded.

KATYA GORCHINSKAYA, Chief Editor, KyivPost: That in itself is a huge challenge, even for a team that — if the team was well-fitted, well-suited, well-coordinated. But it’s not. It’s a very, very motley crew of people, of different, you know, political backgrounds. And they just got together right before as a result of the revolution. To be a good revolutionary is not the same as being a good bureaucrat.

MARGARET WARNER: Among that motley coalition now holding key ministries, one faction that’s caused alarm in Russian-dominated Eastern Ukraine and beyond: the right-wing nationalist Svoboda party. Its parliamentary leader, Oleh Tyahnybok, was once quoted boasting that Ukrainians fought bravely in World War II against Muscovites, Germans, Jews, and other scum.

Do you disavow that now?

OLEH TYAHNYBOK, Svoboda Party (through interpreter): That’s what I said, but my 10-year-old words are being twisted by those who profit it from it. This is also Russian propaganda. We are neither fascists, nor Nazis. These are nothing but insinuations.

MARGARET WARNER: What’s Svoboda’s agenda now?

OLEH TYAHNYBOK (through interpreter): It’s very important for us to conduct honest, transparent, fair elections for president. It’s very important for us to renew people’s trust in government.

MARGARET WARNER: That election in just eight weeks holds promise for editor Gorchinskaya too. But she isn’t sure how long Ukrainians will wait for the change they have demanded and died for.

KATYA GORCHINSKAYA: Basically, the nation is now in post-traumatic stress. First, we had revolution that lasted for four years — four months, and now we have the war, and it just doesn’t seem to stop.

MARGARET WARNER: To judge the limits of patience, we visited the Bezverhiy family one evening, Andrey and his mother, Tamara. Even though she draws a pension now, she still works too.

Andrey has hope.

MAN: There’s no changes so far, but I see changes in the people’s mentality, because they have started to feel kind of like responsibility for their country, for their own future.

MARGARET WARNER: Among those responsibilities, defending Ukraine. Thousands are flocking to enlist. Others, reservists like Andrey, are awaiting call-up notices.

TAMARA BEZVERHIY, (through interpreter): Unfortunately, no one asks mom whether she wants or not. If they say there is a need, then you need to go. I have only him. Even if I had five of them, I would have pity on each. I am worrying.

MARGARET WARNER: Yet his mother agrees this country is ready to do more.

TAMARA BEZVERHIY (through interpreter): Every generation has something, war, famine. We have this fate. We are eager to tighten our belts. We can endure.

MARGARET WARNER: This time, Ukrainians want to do more than endure their latest trauma, and use it to finally stake a claim to their own futures.