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Examining the push and pull over Ukraine between Russia and the West

February 7, 2014 at 6:17 PM EDT
Chief foreign correspondent Margaret Warner has talked to Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland about her leaked phone conversation on the situation in Ukraine. Margaret joins Judy Woodruff to discuss the possible motivations behind the leak and Russia’s longstanding emotional and political ties to Ukraine.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And Margaret joins me now.

So, Margaret, what is the real story here?

MARGARET WARNER: Judy, I think, for context, there are two big things going on.

You have this real post-Cold War struggle for influence between the U.S. and the West and Russia over this last major Soviet satellite, in this case a republic, Ukraine, which is still seesawing between aligning with the West or sort of reknitting its ties with Russia and joining this sphere of influence that Putin is trying to rebuild.

The second important context point is that the U.S. and the E.U. have actually been working pretty closely together to try and calm the situation in Kiev. As you could see from those videos, they’re getting more violent.

And I talked to Nuland this morning from Kiev, and she said it’s very different than last December, and, in fact she said, we have got extremists in both camps. There are people in government who want to impose martial law and there are people in the opposition who want to throw Molotov cocktails.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You did talk to her. What is she saying about all this?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, I was surprised that she agreed to talk to me. But the State Department — she and the State Department are trying to put a good face on this. There have been jokes about her penchant for salty language.

She said to me what she said in the briefing, that, look, we’re very transparent. There’s nothing in this call that we haven’t been open, that we’re trying to negotiate a political way out of this horrible situation. But they also, the embassy — and I think we have a photo of this — tweeted a photo showing — to show there’s no difference among the opposition.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There they are.

MARGARET WARNER: It’s Nuland and Pyatt with the three members of the opposition all looking at an iPad, ostensibly laughing about it together.

And, in fact, these three opposition figures are very — are very different here. But the danger is, of course, that, as the iPad — as the YouTube video posted, that this opposition will be known as the puppets of Maidan, that is, puppets of the West in Maidan Square.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, how was the call interpreted?  One assumes that these diplomats are using secure telephones.

MARGARET WARNER: You would think so.

Well, I don’t have all the details, but this occurred late on a Saturday, two weeks ago Saturday night, on the 25th. And it was very late in Kiev. The implication I get is that perhaps the ambassador wasn’t on a secure phone, he wasn’t at the embassy. And the larger question here is, how secure are these diplomats’ phones?

And so the State Department was pressed on this today. Jen Psaki said they all use these BlackBerrys which are encrypted for data.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The spokeswoman.

MARGARET WARNER: Yes, who we just showed.

They’re encrypted for data, but not for voice. That, of course, raised the question. But she said, no one’s supposed to talk about classified information on one of these cell phones. Well, where do you draw the line?  And then the question was raised, well, what about Secretary of State Kerry?  Does he not have encrypted voice?  And she wouldn’t go there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, does the U.S. believe that Russia was behind this?

MARGARET WARNER: They don’t — they say they don’t have absolute proof, but really either Russia or the Russian-trained Ukrainian security services.

Really, they both had the opportunity, the capability, and who else has the motive?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, you know, you mentioned Nuland and salty language. Is that just the way they talk all the time to each other?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, there’s some joke about how she spent — apparently, it’s true — eight months on a Russian fishing trawler when she was 22 years old, and that’s how she learned all these curse words.

Literally, Jen Psaki, the spokeswoman, said that yesterday. But underneath it all, though, the U.S. and the E.U. agree on the objective here, which is to pull Yanukovych back to the West.

They have had real differences on tactics. And behind the scenes, U.S. officials have been complaining since December that the E.U. didn’t recognize the danger. They’re the ones who made the original offer, and they didn’t put enough aid in it for Yanukovych — Ukraine is really hurting financially — that they haven’t stepped in to help the opposition negotiate this deal, and that they won’t — haven’t gotten a package of sanctions ready in case Yanukovych cracks down.

So when you hear that — there is frustration and that came out. There was another leaked call that has Ashton, Catherine Ashton, the E.U. envoy deputy, talking to her ambassador in Ukraine, and they’re complaining about the U.S. pressure. So there’s frustration on both sides.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you started out talking about this all takes place in the context of a larger push and pull between the United States and Russia. So, step back. Put this in that context. What is going on from a larger standpoint?

MARGARET WARNER: The larger standpoint is that Putin is trying to recreate a center of Russian influence, and he’s got some of these former republics rejoining a kind of customs union and a trade union.

But Ukraine is just key to that. Many Russians — the whole Russian nation sort of started in Kiev. I mean, they have a deep emotional tie to the Ukrainians. There was a recent poll that showed 55 or 60 percent of Russians considered Ukrainians, that they’re one people. So, there is an emotional reason.

But it really has to do with geopolitics. And so this is important to Putin. He handled it quite well in December. He didn’t threaten Yanukovych. Instead, he just gave him $15 billion. But Russia experts I talked to today said they think he senses momentum shifting away from Moscow.

I mean, suddenly, Yanukovych has invited some opposition members into the government. And they wanted to sort of drive a wedge between the U.S. and the E.U. and sow dissension. And we will see. Yanukovych is supposed to see Putin in Sochi.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And Russia — so, so far, Russia is accepting this?


Russia, in fact, has now held up this aid package until they see what the new government looks like. Nuland had another sort of colorful phrase on the phone to me today. She said, what the Russians do, what Putin does is keeping giving more cocaine in tinier bags for a higher price. She said, we’re offering him the Weight Watchers plan, a little pain at the beginning, and then he can be sleek and beautiful, meaning an IMF package, which will be painful, a lot of reforms required.

So, I would say the struggle very much continues. And a lot is up to Yanukovych. It could end in bloodshed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, colorful, but serious, too.

MARGARET WARNER: Yes, serious stuff.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Margaret, thank you.