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Why negotiations are likely ‘the only way out’ of Ukraine crisis

September 1, 2014 at 8:14 PM EDT
Ukrainian rebels softened their demand for outright independence at the talks in Belarus on Monday. Instead, they offered to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty in exchange for a measure of autonomy. Judy Woodruff joins The Christian Science Monitor’s Fred Weir, reporting from Moscow, to discuss how rebels are gaining the leverage on the ground, and why a military solution has become elusive.

JUDY WOODRUFF: At the meeting in Minsk today, the rebels softened their demand for outright independence. Instead, they offered to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty in exchange for a measure of autonomy.

For more on today’s developments, I talked a short while ago with Fred Weir of The Christian Science Monitor, reporting in Moscow.

Fred Weir, thank you very much for talking with us.

Before I ask you about the diplomacy, give us an update on the situation on the ground. Does one side or another now have — clearly have the upper hand?

FRED WEIR, The Christian Science Monitor: Well, yes, it has shifted back and forth over the past several months.

But it appears that the Ukrainian armed forces overextended themselves. They surrounded the two rebel capitals. And the rebels did give up a lot of territory. Turns out they were kind of enticing the Ukrainians into a trap. And they appear to have encircled several concentrations of Ukrainian forces.

They have apparently taken 700 prisoners just in the last few days. So, at the moment, in that area — that is the eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk — the rebels clearly have the upper hand. They are on the offensive, and Kiev forces are retreating. It doesn’t mean that they’re going to march on Kiev any time soon, but they certainly seem to have reversed their fortunes. And they may now be in a very, very strong position to bargain for some kind of autonomy or even independence.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And that’s what I wanted to ask you about, because it appears that they have changed their position somewhat. Instead of asking for complete independence, if looks as if they’re asking for something else.

What’s your understanding of what the rebels are asking for in these talks going on in Belarus?

FRED WEIR: Well, it’s very likely that they are synchronizing their position with Moscow.

I think that it’s — it is basically Vladimir Putin who is deciding what the endgame is here. And he doesn’t want to invade Ukraine or annex Eastern Ukraine or anything like that.

And so the rebels now in these semi-official talks that are going on in Belarus, in Minsk, have dropped their demand for full independence and are saying that they would settle for some kind of sweeping autonomy, which would give them control over the language they use, the right to elect their own leaders, to appoint their own armed law enforcement officials, and, more crucially, to make their own economic arrangements, which means that they would be able to continue dealing with Russia across the border, regardless of Moscow’s relations with Kiev.

As I say, they’re winning on the battlefield now. It does look like there won’t be any military solution, which was plan A in Kiev, to liberate this territory and restore Kiev. Kiev’s — their — that doesn’t look set to happen, so probably negotiations are the only way out.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And how does what they’re asking for, the rebels, square with what the government of Ukraine is prepared to do?

FRED WEIR: Well, you know, if we could separate ourselves from the passions we all feel about what’s going on there, it isn’t that hard, I think, to see that Ukraine could accept Moscow’s conditions.

I don’t mean that they would like to be dictated to by Moscow, but Moscow’s conditions are basically, Ukraine must be nonaligned, never join NATO. Two, the Russian language should have official status in Ukraine, particularly in Eastern Ukraine, and, third, that there is this sweeping autonomy for the eastern provinces.


FRED WEIR: Those are not that hard to live with.

It would be some kind of status like, say, Finland had during the Cold War or something, which is what Moscow, I think, sees as the endgame.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So is the thinking that there could be an accommodation here?

FRED WEIR: Well, if neither side can actually win on the battlefield, then what is the alternative? They can’t go on bleeding themselves the way they are.

Ukraine’s economy is imploding. There has to be — this has to break somehow. And if ever there was an opening for diplomacy and for some kind of compromise to settle this thing, I think that would probably be now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Fred Weir with “The Christian Science Monitor,” reporting in Moscow, we thank you.

FRED WEIR: Thank you.