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Has the moment passed for the West to sway Ukraine with sanctions?

February 20, 2014 at 6:14 PM EDT
World powers have watched as the Ukrainian conflict has escalated to unrestrained battle. How can they help ensure stability for this country that’s in the heart of Europe while tightly connected to Russia? Gwen Ifill talks to William Taylor, former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, and Matthew Rojansky of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
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GWEN IFILL: The world is watching Ukraine, but what do they see, what can they do and what’s at stake?

For more on that, we’re joined by William Taylor, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. He’s now a vice president at the U.S. Institute of Peace. And Matthew Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute, which focuses on Russia and Ukraine at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Mr. Ambassador, United States, Germany, Sweden, France, Poland, all of these countries are now engaged in conversations about what to do in Ukraine. Why is Ukraine central to their interests?

WILLIAM TAYLOR, Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine: Ukraine is at the heart of Europe, so the Europeans that you mentioned are very interested to see stability.

They are interested to see a market. That is why the discussions between the European Union and the Ukrainians on a free-trade agreement have been so important and got fairly close. So the economic issues are key, but the social issues are also important.

Ukrainians would like people to recognize that, A., they’re sovereign, but, B., they’re European. They are at the heart of Europe. They know that they’re on the borders between European Union and the Russians, as your map showed.

So that discussion is an important one for the Ukrainians in particular. But the Europeans and the Russians have things at stake. We have things at stake. We would like to see the Ukrainians make their own decisions. We would like to see a sovereign Ukraine that is run by a democratic government making decisions that affect Ukraine.

GWEN IFILL: But, Matthew Rojansky, what if a sovereign Ukraine — there are so many Russian speakers. So much of the country is still allied with Russia. What if a sovereign Ukraine chose Russia?

MATTHEW ROJANSKY, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars: Well, I think one of the fundamental problems within Ukraine now is not just that the country is divided between an east which prefers Russia, speaks Russia, and a west which prefers Ukraine or Europe, but that the conversation, as Ambassador Taylor mentioned, isn’t really about geopolitics anymore.

It’s about decency. It’s about whether people have a right to protest, to speak out about what they want in the first place, whether the government can simply steal from them with impunity, which it has been doing for many years now. And it’s not about individual political leaders.

You know, it’s not about getting Yulia Tymoshenko out of prison, as it was maybe a year or two years ago. This is about people who are dying needlessly in the streets for simply exercising basic rights and freedoms. The problem with that scenario is even cutting a geopolitical deal — imagine Russia, the United States and Europe sit down around a table and they come to a compromise — it doesn’t necessarily solve the violence we’re seeing on the streets today. We have reached a kind of dead end crisis point.

GWEN IFILL: In fact, last night, we heard there was a truce declared. And then there wasn’t a truce, as we — do we know if that was ever real?

WILLIAM TAYLOR: I think it was proposed and agreed on both sides and might have resulted in some discussions.

That actually is cause for some hope that, when the leaders get together, they can come to an agreement and they can make some plans to sit down and have a discussion about how to resolve this. Today’s violence makes that much more difficult, I would say not impossible, but much more difficult.

GWEN IFILL: Why did this escalate so fast?  Why did it seem, a week two, maybe two weeks ago as if things had been resolved, and then it stirred up again, and then it seemed like we were on the brink of something, and now we’re approaching 100 deaths?

MATTHEW ROJANSKY: I think you have at least two problems. One of them is the spoiler effect.

You know, Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, mentioned these extremists that the West refuse to condemn. It’s true. There are absolutely people who are in the crowds who from the beginning have been prepared to use shocking violence.

Just as an almost comical, if it weren’t so tragic, example today, some forces on the Maidan actually pulled the bodyguards of the European foreign ministers who were visiting out of their cars and roughed them up. Right? So people who are ready to go first to violence are on both sides.

But I think the second problem is, you know, violence begets violence. And once you had casualties — again, the protests ceased to be about joining with the European Union. They ceased to be about geopolitics. They ceased to be even about domestic politics. They’re about anger at what has been done to innocent people.

And that’s something that is very difficult to de-escalate.

GWEN IFILL: So what are the options, Ambassador Taylor?  Say that the United States has some leverage or Russia has some leverage. And Yanukovych is still holding his ground. What are his options here? 

WILLIAM TAYLOR: His options are to back down. Difficult for him to do. Another option is to declare a state of emergency and use a larger force, the military force, which he’s not yet done. If he were to…

GWEN IFILL: Though there is fear that that is…

WILLIAM TAYLOR: There is fear.

And we ought to be making it very clear that that is such a bad idea, that it’s such a terrible thing for Ukraine and for the rest of the world, for that matter, that we would take strong measures.

GWEN IFILL: I heard today, however, that our secretary of defense has been trying to call, and isn’t getting his phone calls returned. So, how do we make it clear?

WILLIAM TAYLOR: They understand this.

They understand exactly what the consequences would be, in terms of financial sanctions — and the Europeans have done the right thing of moving forward — in terms of travel bans, most of — all of the senior people in the government have assets in Europe, mainly in Europe.

They have their children in European schools. They value those things. These sanctions, I think, are something that we ought to push with the Europeans.

GWEN IFILL: Matthew Rojansky, what do you think about the prospect of sanctions?  Is it too — is it the right time, or is it too little too late?

MATTHEW ROJANSKY: Well, it’s already passed, in the sense that the United States has imposed a visa ban and other kinds of, I believe, financial sanctions are under way.

Europe is well under way as well. My concern here is, we’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, we are trying to impose sanctions on people who more or less feel that their lives are at stake, their political survival. Ukraine is not a country where you leave political office, you give up wealth and power and you’re fine.

Look at Yulia Tymoshenko, right? So if these people’s backs are against the wall, telling them you can’t vacation in Florida, the South of France, we’re going to freeze your assets, it just may not be enough. There may be a few grains of sand on one end of the scale. It doesn’t change the balance for them.

On the other hand, if we escalate sanctions, if we go after Ukrainian businesses which are owned by the so-called oligarchs, the kingmakers in Ukraine, the results of that could be very unpredictable. Bringing these powerful forces into the fight more directly, we don’t know how that will end. It could mean widening violence in the country.

GWEN IFILL: It sounds like you believe a moment has passed and we just have to let this play out.

WILLIAM TAYLOR: I’m not sure the moment has passed.

We shouldn’t — I think we shouldn’t assume the moment has passed. Both sides recognize that they are at an impasse, and the violence shows how serious it is. Both sides recognize the seriousness of this. We shouldn’t assume that there is nothing that we can do and we ought to just allow things to happen.

GWEN IFILL: And what would that be?

WILLIAM TAYLOR: That would be to make it clear again that there are consequences for European — for European investments that the Ukrainians have.

On the oligarchs, they, it seems to me, Matt, have been cautious about where they come down. It’s not clear to me that the oligarchs have been supporting the government, supporting Yanukovych on this thing. So, I wouldn’t push them over away from the possibility of supporting what we are talking about in terms of sovereignty and of a negotiated settlement.

GWEN IFILL: Is it possible that Russia has more leverage in this than any of the European countries or the U.S.?

MATTHEW ROJANSKY: I think at this point, yes, but it’s a question of very fine distinctions.

If Russia was calling the shots to the degree that a lot of people suggest, I don’t think you would see the chaos that you see right now. Early on in this, in November of last year, December, it maybe served the Kremlin’s interest to make the argument, hey, you moved towards Europe, you get chaos. Right?

At this point, when you have blood running in the streets, Russian investments, Russian family ties, Russia’s political interests in simply stability and security in its neighborhood — I mean, you saw the map. These countries are joined at the hip and have been for their entire histories. This isn’t in Russia’s interest anymore either.

And so I query whether Putin really has the ability, even if he wanted to, to say, stop the violence and make it stick. But that’s what is needed. We need a pause. We need time for people to recover and then to have serious negotiations.

GWEN IFILL: Matthew Rojansky of the Wilson Center and William Taylor of the U.S. Institute of Peace, thank you both very much.

MATTHEW ROJANSKY: Thank you.