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How do Ukrainians feel about the secession of Crimea?

March 24, 2014 at 6:18 PM EST
Gwen Ifill talks to chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner, reporting from Kiev, about the vulnerability of the Ukrainian military, as well as how Ukrainians are reacting to the secession of Crimea and their feelings about the role of the West in their conflict with Russia.
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TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: I spoke to Margaret in Kiev a short time ago.

Margaret, it’s good to see you again.

You have been traveling to Southeastern Ukraine, to Crimea. Tonight, you’re in Kiev, right in the Maidan, it looks like. How are people reacting there to what we saw come out of The Hague today, with some strong, tough words for Putin?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Gwen, at the official level, we met with the economy minister today. They’re very grateful for any kind of economic assistance and the threat of sanctions against Putin.

But I have to say that, from the general public, there was really a feel that what the U.S. and West are doing is grossly insufficient, that this idea of prospective — threat of prospective sanctions hasn’t stopped Putin, it isn’t going to stop him now, and they feel they have been left to fight one on one with the Russians.

I sat in a cafe right down here off the Maidan with a former defense minister on Sunday who said, you know, the U.S. and the Brits in particular who signed this memorandum in ’94, under which Ukraine gave up the third largest nuclear arsenal in the world, Ukraine thought that was on the basis Russia and the U.S. and the U.K. would preserve the territorial integrity of Ukraine.

The U.S. says it wasn’t that kind of a treaty, but that’s fine print, as far as they’re concerned. And so there’s a feeling of betrayal by the United States and at the same time, among people out here in the square anger at their own government for what they feel was giving up Crimea too easily.

GWEN IFILL: So they felt that even though Crimea seems far away from Kiev, they felt that there should have been more of a fight put out to keep it?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, yes, Gwen.

And I have to say I was surprised. These people out in the Maidan, they are the remnants of tens of thousands of people that were here and really fought and some died for this revolution. And these are a couple of thousand people who are still camped out. And their whole purpose is to keep pressure on the new government, to end corruption, bring more transparency and deliver for people.

So I was just stunned yesterday when we spent several hours here to hear many talking about Crimea, in a sense that — I mean, they’re not military experts. They don’t know if really Ukraine could possibly have defended Crimea, but they feel there’s a real loss of part of Ukrainian territory and great disappointment in their government, who already faces tremendous economic pressures. But now they face this new emergency and they’re really ill-equipped to handle it.

GWEN IFILL: Well, now we see the U.S. national security adviser and the NATO commander expressing grave worries about what’s happening along the border with Russian troops.

Do you feel that echoed as well in the streets of Kiev?

MARGARET WARNER: In the streets of Kiev, Gwen, and also in the streets of Donetsk in southeastern Ukraine, where we spent several days late last week.

And we went out to the border. The fact is, the Ukrainian military is woefully unprepared. There’s no way they can really take on the Russians. Now, they vowed at this time to fight, that if Russia wants to cross that border, they’re going to have to fight and they’re going to incur losses for it.

But this border is wide open. I mean, the governor, a wealthy oligarch governor and his businessman brother built this trench supposedly to stop tanks. We went up there, as you could see in our Friday piece. I could practically ford it while fly-fishing.

It is not going to stop a modern Russian tank. And the only military equipment that we saw of the Ukrainian military were like old Soviet issue, I don’t know, armored — armored vehicles — I’m not even sure they were armored.

And the ambassador, U.S. ambassador told me today that, really, the Ukrainian military had been pretty much decimated by the years of corruption. Yes, they have moved some troops now from the western border to the east, but they were so lacking in basics that oligarchs had to chip in to buy them fuel and batteries.

And the final element, which I hadn’t realized until I got here, is that the loss of Crimea meant the loss of about three-quarters of its navy. The only warship they have got left is one that NATO helped retrofit that was down fighting piracy off the Somalia coast. They essentially have no navy, and that this army — as you know, the army and air force are now being evacuated from Crimea, but some are going to stay because they’re native Crimeans.

And it’s going to be pretty disorganized mess coming back. So they have raised this national guard. They announced today they have got 10,000 new troops. But one woman said to me, a successful businesswoman, yes, they’re like my brother at 19, she said. He is eager to fight, but he’s totally untrained. And she said, we really have a saying here, that they’re going to be like meat for the butcher.

It’s not going to be a pretty sight if Putin decides to cross that border.

GWEN IFILL: Margaret, it’s been amazing going along with you on this reporting trip. Thanks again so much.

MARGARET WARNER: Oh, my pleasure, Gwen.