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Disputed Russian troop withdrawal doesn’t shake separatist resolve in Donetsk

May 19, 2014 at 6:19 PM EDT
The Kremlin announced that Russian President Putin has ordered the 40,000 troops massed on the Ukrainian border to retreat to their home bases. However, the NATO secretary general says he sees no sign of movement. Reporting from Donetsk, chief foreign correspondent Margaret Warner joins Gwen Ifill to discuss the building tensions in Eastern Ukraine and upcoming national elections.

GWEN IFILL: With Ukraine’s national elections less than a week away, Russian President Vladimir Putin today made a major but unsubstantiated announcement about his troops in the area.

Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner is in Donetsk and reports that uncertainty has become the new normal in Eastern Ukraine.

MARGARET WARNER: For months, 40,000 Russian troops, backed by tanks and heavy armored vehicles, have been patrolling near the border with Ukraine. But the Kremlin said today that President Vladimir Putin has ordered them back to their home bases.

So far, though, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen says he sees no sign of movement.

ANDERS FOGH RASMUSSEN, Secretary General, NATO: I think it’s the third Putin statement on withdrawal of Russian troops, but so far we haven’t seen any withdrawal at all. I strongly regret that, because a withdrawal of Russian troops would be a first important contribution to de-escalating the crisis.

MARGARET WARNER: Here in Donetsk, the capital of the Eastern Ukrainian province of the same name, reaction was mixed to this latest Kremlin pronouncement.

MAN (through interpreter): I don’t trust Putin. No one trusts him, because he lies. He once said the same thing, but he didn’t take away their forces.

MARGARET WARNER: But Uriy Pasechnikov said the troops he worries about are the Ukrainian forces who have come into this restive Eastern region.

URIY PASECHNIKOV (through interpreter): Troops from Kiev, we see and can trace what is happening in Slavyansk, Kramatorsk, Mariupol, and Odessa. We perfectly see that. And we do not see Putin.

MARGARET WARNER: Just up the street, outside the regional government building now occupied by pro-Russian separatists, we met young Yevgeniy. The former Ukrainian soldier wouldn’t give us his last name or let his face be fully shown. But he told us he joined the barricades because he believes Donetsk would have a brighter economic future if joined with Russia.

MAN (through interpreter): We are waiting for the Russians to help us.

MARGARET WARNER: If this report is true and if Putin pulls his forces back from the border, will that weaken your position here?

MAN (through interpreter): No. We are so pressured by economic instability that we are determined to change our situation.

MARGARET WARNER: And despite lunchtime scenes of seeming urban tranquility, tensions seem raw here. Just 100 yards from the front of the occupied government building, heavily-armed masked men in unmarked uniforms stopped two vehicles and hauled out several young men in desert fatigues, searched them and took them away. It was unclear whether this was a training exercise or, as some bystanders speculated, it was an operation apprehending Ukrainian nationalists from the west.

The local security authorities are still performing normal police duties, but seem overwhelmed in the face of the separatists’ challenge. This morning, General Konstantin Nikolaevich, commander of all police in the Donetsk region, admitted as much. He conceded what he called terrorist separatist elements had taken control of two smaller cities, Slavyansk and Kramatorsk, north of Donetsk.

So — but they are in charge there?

KONSTANTIN NIKOLAEVICH, Chief of Police, Donetsk Region (through interpreter): Yes, they are wholly controlling the situation there. They took over the police departments in Slavyansk and Kramatorsk and at the moment are present there.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, why can’t you take it back?

KONSTANTIN NIKOLAEVICH (through interpreter): I think it’s a military responsibility now, and not the police. Functions of the police are securing the public order and crime investigation. There are armed men. This should be solved by the anti-terrorist center.

MARGARET WARNER: We asked why his own men can’t at least reclaim the occupied Donetsk regional government building nearby.

KONSTANTIN NIKOLAEVICH (through interpreter): The problem is not how to clear the building, but how to hold it after that. We lack the interior military forces to prevent the destructive elements from retaking it.

MARGARET WARNER: So you’re saying are, the local police here that you’re in charge of really can’t handle the situation on your own?

KONSTANTIN NIKOLAEVICH (through interpreter): I can control the overall situation, but not to free the administration buildings. We have enough weapons, but for 23 years, we didn’t have to use building-clearing skills.

MARGARET WARNER: Later, at an afternoon police shift change, the challenge facing Nikolaevich’s local forces was apparent. His men were mostly armed with mace and nightsticks. Only two carried any true weapons at all.

GWEN IFILL: I spoke with Margaret a short time ago.

Margaret, it’s good to see you.

You were in Eastern Ukraine just eight weeks ago. How have things changed?

MARGARET WARNER: Definitely changed, Gwen.

I mean, there are a lot of overblown rumors. Today, for instance, at one point, we were told that the railway station had been seized by separatists. When we got there, they hadn’t been, but the administration building has.

So that showed the separatists can pretty much move at will. Number two, when we got to that occupied government building, that’s just where we had interviewed this wealthy oligarch governor who had just appointed by Kiev. He boasted of how they had taken back the building. Now it’s completely filled by Russian occupiers or local Russian sympathizing occupiers.

And on the top floor, there definitely were guys with guns and speaking in true Russian accents. Number three and — was, ominously, one of the last remaining electoral commission offices preparing for the Sunday election declared today it was shutting down, after having guys come in, threaten them, steal their computers, and have a near — having had a nearby office shutdown.

So none of this is great, and feels a little menacing when it comes to next Sunday’s election.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let’s talk about next Sunday’s election. How do they — or are they taking any steps to ensure that it will be seen as legitimate?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, what they tried to do, Gwen, was to go ahead and conduct an election normally here, as Ukraine has done every four years or so. So they know how to do it.

But the chances, I think, look dimmer by the day. You not only have the blunt comments from the electoral commission head today, but one of the people most intimately involved with this European-led negotiation that’s going on told me by phone today he’d been here in Donetsk yesterday, and he had been told and had seen that one of the offices where they’re going to actually count votes, all the computers have been smashed.

So he said even if people do vote, he said their votes really won’t be able to be counted. Finally, today, what was clear from talking to people was that how you vote is going to be determined completely by where your sympathies are. So, for instance, people in the occupied government building, the pro-Russian people, said, oh, they voted in last Sunday’s referendum, the one that was eight days ago for independence. They weren’t going to show up Sunday.

Then all the people we talked to who said they wanted to vote for a united Ukraine didn’t participate last Sunday. They are going to participate this Sunday. So one man in the park said to us, you know, you in the West, I think you read this press and you think everyone here is pro-Russian, where, actually, a lot of us want to be part of a united Ukraine.

And a Pew research poll found that 70 percent of the people here are of that mind. But the danger is, as it seems to me now, is that the vote next Sunday, whatever does occur here, could be seen just as illegitimate or at least characterized at illegitimate as last Sunday’s. And that’s not great for this government that is hoping that this vote will restore a sense of legitimacy and unity to the country.

GWEN IFILL: Are the people you talk to on the street engaged in this whole process, or is this just left for the politicians and the elites?

MARGARET WARNER: Both, Gwen. On the one hand, a lot of people are not terribly political here, but their life has clearly been elected.

When we were here before, the demonstrations were kind of ritualistic. People would show up on the weekend and then go home. And people — other people would be out and about shopping.

Last night, when we arrived, it was a very balmy night. Locals told us, ordinarily, the streets would be filled, people would be in restaurants. Instead, they’re not. And a woman who was on the plane with us from Kiev said: “I’m landing at 8:30 p.m. It’s going to be dark. I’m going straight home and staying inside all night. I never go out at night because I’m afraid.”

And, again, that is all a very disheartening, discouraging sign for the U.S., the Europeans and the government in Kiev that hopes to find some resolution to this conflict.

GWEN IFILL: Well, Margaret, we’re looking forward to your reports all week. Stay safe.

MARGARET WARNER: Will do, Gwen. Thanks.