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Is Ukraine on the verge of spinning out of control?

February 18, 2014 at 6:12 PM EDT
The deadly violence and mayhem gripping Kiev signals an escalation in the more than two months of protests against the pro-Russia Ukrainian government. Steven Pifer of the Brookings Institution and Adrian Karatnycky of the Atlantic Council join Gwen Ifill to discuss the root causes of the unrest, the leverage of the West and the outside forces pushing Ukraine into battle.
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GWEN IFILL: The mayhem and deadly violence today in Kiev marked an escalation of the more than two months of sporadic protests against the government in Ukraine that has ensnared Europe, Russia and the U.S.

A few moments ago, the official death toll climbed to at least 18.

To assess this latest unrest, we turn to Steven Pifer, former U.S. ambassador to the Ukraine during the Clinton administration. He’s now at the Brookings Institution. And Adrian Karatnycky, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

Steven Pifer, today, Lady Catherine Ashton, the foreign policy chief of the European Union, said someone’s got to get to the root causes of this unrest. What are the root causes?

STEVEN PIFER, former U.S. ambassador to the Ukraine: Well, the original cause of these demonstrations was the decision by President Yanukovych in November to slow down Ukraine’s effort to draw closer to the European Union by an association agreement.

But since then, I think it’s grown. You now have people out there who are unhappy about the corruption they have seen, which has grown worse under President Yanukovych’s tenure. They’re unhappy about the authoritarian tendencies they have seen in the government.

So you have got a lot of grievances out there that are represented by these people in Maidan Nezalezhnosti, that central square in Kiev.

GWEN IFILL: Adrian Karatnycky, I know that you and probably Ambassador Pifer and I have all been glued to this live feed we have been watching all day of the protest in the main square there. We’re looking at it live right now.

What do you think is the reason for this crackdown now, when we thought it had eased for a while?

ADRIAN KARATNYCKY, the Atlantic Council: Well, I do think that there — there was a pent-up anger on the part of the demonstrators who want a resolution after three months of peaceful protests.

And they marched peacefully today, and they were met with assault and attacks, initially from gangs that have been hired by the government to beat up the opposition. The police then joined the melee and violence spiraled. So I think what initially started as a show of force to press the government into a constitutional reform that would allow the country to move away from a highly centralized system and would be one of the key elements in leading to an accommodation was the initial reason for the protest.

And the protest disintegrated in the face of violence and broke down. I should say that many of the — in the last weeks, thousands of Ukrainian oppositionists have been organizing into very disciplined, organized self-defense groups. Several thousand of them are on the public square in Maidan in the face of violence which initially claimed five people in mid-January and terrible beatings of hundreds and thousands of people, concussions of people, abductions of dozens of people, death squads operating.

And so there was sort of a movement towards self-defense. And this is now likely to accelerate in the face of this violence.

GWEN IFILL: So, Steven Pifer, where is the U.S. in this?  We know that the ambassador, Geoffrey Pyatt, to Ukraine, the U.S. ambassador, has been tweeting non-stop all day, very, very critical of the government there.

And we hear late this afternoon that Vice President Biden called the President Yanukovych and told him to step back from the brink. Does the U.S. have leverage?

STEVEN PIFER: Well, I think, first of all, you have seen a judgment by the U.S. government that the primary responsibility for today’s violence and the primary responsibility for stopping this lies with the Yanukovych government.

I think that’s very clear from what you have heard both from the ambassador and also from the White House’s statement. Now, I think at the end of the day, the responsibility for resolving this crises rests on Ukraine. Ukrainians have to solve it.

But the United States and the European Union, I believe, do have some leverage. And that would be through the use of targeted visa and financial sanctions. That would be used with two goals. One goal would be to make clear that anyone who engages in the use of force or violence is going to be punished in terms of no visas to travel to the West.

And then second — a second sort of sanctions that would aim at those in that inner circle around Mr. Yanukovych, making clear that they would be subject to visa and financial sanctions if they did not encourage Mr. Yanukovych to begin to engage in a real, genuine dialogue and stop the use of force.

A lot of those people, they like to travel to Vienna, they like to travel to London, they keep their money in Western banks. If that became endangered, they might well then begin to apply some pressure on Mr. Yanukovych to bring this violence to an end and get a genuine dialogue under way.

GWEN IFILL: Adrian Karatnycky, we that know Russia has played a pretty big role in one part of this, releasing $2 billion in promised money to help the government earlier this week or earlier this month.

I guess the question now is whether this is indeed a proxy war in some ways between Russia and the U.S., taking opposite sides of a fight that’s playing out in Maidan Square.

ADRIAN KARATNYCKY: I don’t think it’s a proxy war between the U.S. and the E.U. on one side and Russia on the other.

But I do think Russia is very deeply engaged. It is well-known from my sources, which are close to the intelligence community, that Russian advisers are working with the ministry of internal affairs and gaming the attacks on the public square.

And I believe that the Russians have all along miscalculated the nature and the depth of public anger, as has Mr. Yanukovych. And I think that their — this miscalculation can lead to a catastrophic loss of life that will not end up in the quelling of protests.

As we speak now in the western district of Ukraine, militia officers are taken over peacefully where militia people are simply leaving, or violently if they’re resisting. That means weapons of substantial proportion are going to be in the hands of the public. There are three million firearms that are held by citizens legally in the Ukraine.

We have already seen some snipers operating on the side of the protesters. Seven police have been killed, two members of the Party of Regions, which is the ruling party, and at the moment the toll is up to 20 demonstrators, including in the last hour 14 people killed in the Maidan, which had previously by agreement been a territory that was — that the government had just last week agreed was a no-go zone. And today they decided to break that agreement and to storm it and to attack the mainly peaceful protesters that have been gathering there for months.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask you both, finally, briefly, what — starting with you Steven Pifer — is there room for renewed dialogue or is this spinning out of control tonight?

STEVEN PIFER: I think it’s on the verge of spinning out of control.

And there was a chance for dialogue. Having a genuine dialogue between Mr. Yanukovych and the opposition was not going to be an easy task. But it has become much more difficult by the decision that’s been taken by the government of Ukraine now to use force to move in on the Maidan like this. There may still be a chance, but it’s a very fleeting one.

GWEN IFILL: Adrian Karatnycky?

ADRIAN KARATNYCKY: I think that the real issue is that there are a number of members of Mr. Yanukovych’s party faction who are linked to large financial — the oligarchs of Ukraine, the businessmen, they have indicated that crossing the line into mass violence and into the declaration — towards the declaration of martial law and the suppression of protests very violently is something that they do not support.

The real question is whether they will act in the next — in the coming days in the parliament to signal their disaffection. That, I think, would lance the boil, so to speak, and would take some of the air out of Mr. Yanukovych’s authority. And I think that that could create the possibility.

But I don’t believe that Mr. Yanukovych, given the steps that he’s taken, is interested in anything but a suppression of these protests. And I think he is gearing up for a terrible battle that could drift into civil war. And I think that the only way to stop him is pressure on the oligarchs and on the business groups to establish their dissension with him and to break ranks and to create some kind of a new process that would put the president on the defensive.

GWEN IFILL: A terrible night in Kiev.

Adrian Karatnycky of the Atlantic Council, Steven Pifer, former U.S. ambassador to the Ukraine, thank you both very much.

STEVEN PIFER: Thank you.