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Kiev struggles to regain control of Eastern Ukraine

April 16, 2014 at 6:16 PM EST
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GWEN IFILL: As diplomats prepare for talks tomorrow aimed at reaching a solution to the crisis in Ukraine, the country’s government struggled again to take back control of the east.

Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner reports.

MARGARET WARNER: Ukrainian armored personnel carriers flying the Russian flag rolled into the eastern city of Slavyansk today, the latest move in a slow-motion takeover of Ukrainian territory.

The country’s defense ministry announced Russian sabotage groups captured the vehicles, and the Ukrainian soldiers in them, but one of those soldiers said he’d defected. Meanwhile, heavily armed men in military gear patrolled streets in Slavyansk and beat an unidentified man before hauling him away.

One of them flashed a Ukrainian passport, and said he’d come to the eastern region, known as the Donbass, from a nearby Russian conquest.

MAN (through interpreter): We are coming from the people’s militia of Crimea and we are here to help people’s militia of Donbass.

MARGARET WARNER: To the south, Ukrainian jets streaked over Kramatorsk, where the government opened an anti-terrorist offensive yesterday and retook a local airfield.

But locals, like this priest, sounded dismayed.

FATHER GEORGIY MUZIKO (through interpreter): My parish is here. Residents of our village, we are against these troops entering and this kind of psychological attacks which they are making with planes flying low.

MARGARET WARNER: To the east, in the provincial capital, Donetsk, masked militants overran more government buildings today. They have already occupied the regional governor’s office for 10 days. This man, unmasked, made their case to reporters in front of the city council building.

ALEXANDER ZAKHARCHENKO, Pro-Russian Activist (through interpreter): Our main demand is to send a message to Ukraine’s parliament demanding to pass a law about local referendums. The second demand is for the city council to help in organizing a local referendum about self-determination of the Donetsk region on May 11.

MARGARET WARNER: His name is Alexander Zakharchenko, and last month, refusing to give his last name, he took us on a tour through Donetsk checkpoints that he and his comrades manned. He said they meant to prevent incursions by supporters of the Kiev government.

ALEXANDER ZAKHARCHENKO (through interpreter): Donetsk is a sleeping giant. Don’t wake it up. If it wakes up, there will be no place for anyone. Kiev cannot threaten our blood ties to Russia. Let us decide our own future.

MARGARET WARNER: In Kiev, this is all seen as a replay of the Russian invasion of Crimea.

Acting Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk:

ARSENIY YATSENYUK, Acting Prime Minister, Ukraine (through interpreter): Besides exporting oil and gas, Russia has started exporting terrorism to Ukraine. It seems like there is only one country in the world, namely Russia, that doesn’t see that Russian groups of infiltrators are committing acts of terrorism on the Ukrainian territory.

MARGARET WARNER: To back up that assertion, the head of Ukrainian counterintelligence said his officers had detained 40 members of the Russian special services, and the agents they recruited.

VITALY NAYDA, Ukrainian Counter-intelligence (through interpreter): Acts of sabotage in the east of Ukraine are openly controlled by staff officers of the main intelligence administration of the joint staff of the Russian military.

ANDERS FOGH RASMUSSEN, Secretary General, NATO: We will have more planes in the air, more ships on the water and more readiness on the land.

MARGARET WARNER: Meanwhile, NATO’s secretary-general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said NATO would fly sorties over the Baltic region and deploy ships into the Baltic and the Eastern Mediterranean Seas. He insisted again that Russia stand down its forces arrayed on Ukraine’s border.

ANDERS FOGH RASMUSSEN: We call on Russia to be part of the solution, to stop destabilizing Ukraine, pull back its troops from the borders and make clear it doesn’t support the violent actions of well-armed militias of pro-Russian separatists.

MARGARET WARNER: The public U.S. position remained diplomacy first, and non-lethal aid for Ukraine.

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf:

MARIE HARF, State Department Spokeswoman: There is no military solution here. We don’t want to see more escalation; what we want is de-escalation. At the same time, we’re constantly reviewing Ukrainian requests for assistance and determining what’s most appropriate to provide.

MARGARET WARNER: In pursuit of diplomacy, Secretary of State John Kerry joins talks in Geneva tomorrow with Russian, Ukrainian and E.U. officials.

The U.S. has also warned of additional sanctions if Russia advances further.