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Putin tries to distance Russia from Ukraine crisis to avoid tighter sanctions

May 23, 2014 at 6:14 PM EDT
Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner joins Jeffrey Brown from Kiev to discuss Russian President Vladimir Putin’s opposing motivations, the fate of the Donetsk People’s Republic, and last-minute preparations — or lack thereof — leading up to Sunday’s national elections.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: Jeffrey Brown spoke to Margaret a short time ago.

JEFFREY BROWN: Margaret, let me ask you first, how do Ukrainians and Western officials you’re talking to explain what’s going on with Vladimir Putin and his seemingly contradictory statements?

MARGARET WARNER: They believe, Jeff, that he’s playing a double game.

On one hand, he does want to keep Ukraine destabilized and kind of torn between East and West. On the other hand, he doesn’t want to be blamed entirely for being responsible for really messing up this election, because the U.S. and the Europeans have made it really clear to him that there will be tougher economic sanctions.

And you notice that his remarks today came at an economic form of big global CEOs in St. Petersburg. So the intimidation campaign continues. He would like to make it look like the results are of dubious legitimacy, but I’m told he’s been privately or people close to him privately already talking to the man who is considered to be the likely winner, if not outright on Sunday, then in a runoff, and that is the so-called chocolate king, this multibillionaire Poroshenko.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so, then, based on your reporting, if Putin does respect the outcome of the election, what would be the impact on the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Jeff, I can only tell you, when we told people from the Donetsk People’s Republic that Putin had said this week that he was going to be moving troops off the border, they really look dismayed.

This is not a hugely professional operation, either in a military sense or a governing sense. It doesn’t compare to Crimea, where I was, and when you saw the Russians sort of trained and advised locals, really taking control down there. It doesn’t feel that way here. There are a lot of internal spats. They’re having trouble even governing the areas they hold.

And so the belief among Ukrainian officials here is without Russia’s backing, that it will be easier to clear them out. Now, they may be wrong. You heard Parubiy say that. And they may be wrong, but that is the belief.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, finally, Margaret, I know that you are back in Kiev. What’s the atmosphere like ahead of Sunday’s election?

MARGARET WARNER: Kind of odd, Jeff.

There’s no pre-election frenzy. You see billboards and so on, but today Poroshenko refused to show up at a debate, and instead he was at the hotel where we are meeting with Norwegian and Danish officials. You get this feeling that everyone is looking ahead. And even one of the candidates I talked to who comes from Yanukovych’s party, which used to be most powerful party, he said, we have just to get through this election. We have got to get a government that everyone recognizes and so that we can move forward.

So the stakes are really high, but this doesn’t feel like an American-style, last-minute, last-evening rallies such as we would have in the States.

JEFFREY BROWN: Margaret Warner in Ukraine for us, thanks so much.

MARGARET WARNER: My pleasure, Jeff.