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Examining the campaign of pro-Russian fervor in Eastern Ukraine

April 14, 2014 at 6:19 PM EST
In Eastern Ukraine, pro-Russian gunmen who had seized control of key buildings in 10 cities defied demands to surrender on Monday. Who is behind these separatist takeovers and what is their motivation? For an assessment, Judy Woodruff talks to Adrian Karatnycky of the Atlantic Council and Michael McFaul of Stanford University.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: President Obama and Russian President Putin spoke by phone this afternoon, but the White House gave no details.

Spokesman Jay Carney did say the U.S. is looking for ways to support Ukraine, but not with any kind of lethal aid.

So who is behind these separatist takeovers in Eastern Ukraine?

For an assessment of the situation there, we turn once again to Adrian Karatnycky. He’s a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He just returned from a trip to Ukraine earlier this month. And Michael McFaul, he was U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2012 until this past February. He’s now a professor of political science at Stanford University.

Welcome to you both.

Adrian Karatnycky, who are these people? They appear to be in camouflage uniforms, very well-armed. They seemed — it seems orchestrated. What is known?

ADRIAN KARATNYCKY, Atlantic Council: It is already known because of telephone intercepts and conversations on their internal communications that have been revealed by the Ukrainian security forces that these people are acting under the direction of Russian minders.

In fact, the person who orchestrated — the political technologist who orchestrated the takeover of Crimea is now their point of contact. These people are perhaps, some of them, redeployed forces from Crimea. There are not very many of them as yet, probably less than a couple hundred. There are not — they are not deployed in all the cities where there have been these kinds of takeovers.

But, generally, the typical pattern is 20 or so of these soldiers heavily armed, semiautomatic, automatic weapons, grenade launchers, move quickly, lightning bolt speed. They overwhelm local police, who basically are carrying pistols and light firearms. They immediately are followed by a group of 50 to 100 black-masked thugs who are also — who probably are people who were used in the violence against the protest movement that brought down Mr. Yanukovych, when thousands of these thugs and strongmen and groups from criminal gangs were used to suppress and actually to abduct and to kill protesters.

And then the third layer is a combination of, I would say, fringe pro-Russian groups and fairly poor people, who apparently are being paid about $50 a day, which is a lot of money in Ukraine, to come out and protest. And there are phone numbers that have been revealed, and people have made phone calls, journalists, to a number of people who are organizing these groups.

They are offering money for participation. Some people are participating legitimately, but, in most cases, if you look at the crowds, you’re talking about 500 people, 1,000 people. You don’t have kind of the groundswell of the masses of the population in any of these city centers.

And, as importantly, in the main center in Donetsk, you don’t seem to have clearly the support of the political elites. The political elites are biding their time. I think they’re using these protests to negotiate a stronger bargain with Kiev. But I think they are playing with fire.

But, basically, I would say there is a substantial Russian-coordinated military and paramilitary engagement. And I would believe that there may be a hand of Mr. Yanukovych and his former interior minister, who built these networks of thugs to suppress protests and now are across the border 100 miles or so from the Ukrainian border in Rostov.

And they, I believe, are helping to coordinate or are in cooperation with Russian security services and the Russian military intelligence, helping to coordinate and to bring to bear all those assets in the service of this theater and of this what I would call in some cases acts of terrorism.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Adrian Karatnycky, you answered several questions I had there about how well-organized it is and how much support there is among the general population.

Michael McFaul, what does this say that Russia wants? There are troops on the border, but the Russian — the Russian leadership, we know Putin and others have talked about a federation. What — what system of government is Russia looking for in Ukraine?

MICHAEL MCFAUL, Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia: Well, first and foremost, they’re not looking for a system of government. They’re looking for a weak government.

They’re trying to undermine what they consider, what they call the illegitimate government in Kiev. And they’re being rather successful at it. As Adrian, I think, very eloquently and comprehensively, just described, this is a very effective campaign. And the government in Kiev now looks weak.

People on the right are criticizing the government for being ineffective. And so what their long-term objective is may be unclear. But their short-term objectives are very clear. That is to destabilize the government of Ukraine.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Michael McFaul, staying with you, but just to be — to drill in on this a little bit more, what is the difference between a government in Ukraine the Russians could live with and something they can’t and won’t live with?

MICHAEL MCFAUL: You know, I don’t think Vladimir Putin knows the answer to that question himself right now.

Let’s be clear that he pivoted after a different kind of strategy that he was following for years, where he thought he could economically dominate all of Ukraine. That fell through for him. And he then moved into Crimea. And that was a tactical reactionary move.

And for him, it seems like it’s been pretty cost-free. So he is encouraged to go further. And I think that is what you are seeing in Eastern Ukraine right now. I don’t want to pretend that I know his final outcome, what he says. I know what he says, which is they want a federal system of government, they want a government that listens to the people that speak Russian and are ethnically Russian in Eastern Ukraine.

But there are lots of ways that that could be done without military intervention, armed military intervention in Eastern Ukraine.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Adrian Karatnycky, back to you. The government in Kiev has several times given deadlines, and those deadlines have passed. What ability do they have to stop what is going on?

ADRIAN KARATNYCKY: I guess Ukrainians don’t have the tradition of Theodore Roosevelt, speak softly and carry a big stick. They seem to be on Facebook, and they seem to be posting and making all sorts of demands.

And they are looking very weak. I do think that the Ukrainian government doesn’t want to have a bloodbath. I think they have already made — if they are capable of carrying out military and security operations in the coming days, I think they will only try to target people who are carrying weapons and take them out at points where there might not be large crowds of civilians.

I think they are very — they’re trying to be very careful not to provoke a bloodbath that might turn the population, which at the moment is relatively passive in many of these places, very nervous, because you have to remember these guys are not just coming in and taking over. They’re creating their own governments. They’re actually getting rid of people who are elected and who seem to have in most of these places enjoyed the support of the local — you know, the local citizenry.

And now there’s a sort of a breakdown of the delivery of services. There’s a question of whether money will be coming to banks, so people will not be able to cash their monthly pensions. And people are living marginally and for day-to-day. And people are, I think, basically hunkering down and — and, you know — and staying — and staying at home.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And then finally to you, Michael McFaul, what is — where is this headed?

MICHAEL MCFAUL: Well, I think it’s a very dire situation.

The government in Kiev doesn’t have good options, as Adrian just alluded to, because they’re damned if they do, they’re damned if they don’t. If they don’t use action, they look weak. If they do use action, that creates a pretext for further Russian intervention.

I think we’re out for a very long, troubled standoff between Russia and Ukraine. I’m very pessimistic about what’s going on right now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, on that note, we thank you both.

Michael McFaul, Adrian Karatnycky, thank you.