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Conflict over Ukraine’s future underscores rivalry between two ways of life

December 17, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
The fate of Ukraine is not only the concern of President Viktor Yanukovych and the nation's citizens; Russia, the U.S. and other Western nations also have stakes in its future. Chief foreign correspondent Margaret Warner joins Gwen Ifill to discuss deep ties between Ukraine and Russia and factors behind Yanukovych's motivation.

GWEN IFILL: And Margaret joins me now.

Let’s start at the Kremlin. What was going on there?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, this was Vladimir Putin trying to lance a boil.

It’s worth remembering, Gwen, that these are the biggest protests in Eastern Europe in this century since the Orange Revolution in 2004, bigger than the protests that came out against Putin about three years ago. And Putin, for once, really played this smart. He didn’t force Yanukovych to sign this customs union. He didn’t rub his nose in it. He gave him this lifeline, which he desperately needs.

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Now, nobody knows what private assurances were given. Also, nobody knows how the opposition is actually going to react, and whether this will sort of quell their — quell their protests or not.

GWEN IFILL: What are the protests about? What is at the root of all of this?

MARGARET WARNER: Two things. One is economic. I mean, the Ukraine has been badly mismanaged. There’s terrible corruption. There are horrible — huge subsidies, overspending. That’s one.

And Ukrainians of a new generation, they look at their neighbor Poland. The Poles joined the Europeans. They live a great life. They have personal freedom. They have money to spend. They have a flourishing economy, and they say, why not us? So there’s that.

There’s also this deeper, sort of old historical and cultural ties between Russia and Ukraine. Russia really does want to reconstitute, not a new Soviet bloc, but a group of countries that are in its orbit economically and dependent on them. And it’s used a lot of economic muscle against Armenia, against Moldova, just to name two.

But Ukraine is the big surprise. Ukraine and Russia go way back centuries. And, in fact, they are the two entities that formed the Soviet Union in 1922. And I remember I was staying with Russian friends when Ukraine decided to break away. And to the father of that family, it was like a betrayal in the family.

So there’s a lot — for Putin, getting Ukraine in this orbit is the golden prize.

GWEN IFILL: It’s cultural as well, and emotional as well as everything else.


GWEN IFILL: But tell me a little bit about what is at stake for the U.S. You have been doing a lot of reporting talking to U.S. officials. some of them have been over there, E.U. officials as well, trying to figure out where to land in all of this.

MARGARET WARNER: There’s a lot at stake for the U.S., Gwen, and also for the West in general.

And that is, because Ukraine is such a strategically important country, if — it’s not a cold war that is going on anymore, but there’s still a geopolitical rivalry between two ways of life. And one is the sort of Western market-oriented, the more personal freedoms of the West in Western Europe and now Eastern Europe — the western part of Eastern Europe.

And then there’s sort of a group around Russia that is more authoritarian, fewer personal freedoms, more controlled economy, and a lot of corruption. And so if the West could manage to reorient Ukraine toward the E.U. to taking the tough steps they will have to, to get IMF loans, which is what they will have to do, a lot of economic pain, but that could have a huge impact, the U.S. believes, on the region and maybe even on Russia.

GWEN IFILL: You know, it’s interesting. We just saw in your piece that Yanukovych seems to tell whoever he talked to last what they want to hear.


GWEN IFILL: He told the E.U. what it wanted to hear — $15 million later — $15 billion — I don’t know. How much is it?

MARGARET WARNER: Yes, billion.

GWEN IFILL: Billion dollars later, he is telling Russia what they want to hear.

How do people read him here?

MARGARET WARNER: Both Europeans and Americans — and I can’t name any names — seem him the same way.

Carl Bildt, the Swedish prime minister, called him complete double-speak two-face. But the Americans — and I include everyone from U.S. senator to U.S. officials and European officials — say when you get in a meeting with him, first of all, he is very obsessed with old grievances, and the E.U. didn’t come through in the way they should have and didn’t treat him with proper respect and give him enough money and doesn’t — he doesn’t — they don’t understand the pressure he is under.

And Russia is essentially saying, we will ruin you if you go this direction. So it’s tough to stand up to that. And — but, more fundamentally, they don’t think he is a man who is really thinking about the future of this country in the long term. They think he is very preoccupied with himself, his political future. He wants to run for reelection.

And, also, it is alleged, the incredible corruption racket that he and his family have going, and so…

GWEN IFILL: Is it me, or does it sound like Afghanistan? The same relationships, awkward relationships with the leader.


MARGARET WARNER: It may. Yes, the same awkward relationships, yes.

And so the big — the big question out there really is, how does Yanukovych sell this when he gets home? Does he say to everybody, look, I bought us a year now, we can pay our debts — because they have huge debts coming up next year — but now we’re going to also move down the IMF path, or does he just say, take it or leave it?

GWEN IFILL: I have cast my lot with Moscow.

MARGARET WARNER: Yes. And he said today, I had no alternative but to sign these.

And, secondly, how do these protesters react? The U.S. has spent a lot of time and energy, Victoria Nuland and others, working with them to stick together, keep it moderate, not make excessive demands. They have kept it very, very well-controlled. But there’s a long, cold winter ahead. Are they going to stay out there? Is something violent going to happen? Anything could happen.

GWEN IFILL: And I know you’re keeping your finger on the pulse. Margaret, thank you.


Thank you.