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U.S. cautious about diplomatic deal to calm conflict in Ukraine

April 17, 2014 at 6:10 PM EDT
After several hours of negotiation, diplomats including Secretary of State John Kerry and Russia’s Sergei Lavrov announced a tentative agreement to ease conflict in Eastern Ukraine. But can Russia and Ukraine actually agree on the real terms of the deal? Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner joins Gwen Ifill to discuss the politics and prospects.

GWEN IFILL: Margaret’s here with more.

Margaret, you are going to have to parse this for us. On one hand, John Kerry came out and said big new agreement, and then the president sounded more cautious, and we heard Putin saying things that the United States believes not to be true.

MARGARET WARNER: That’s right.

GWEN IFILL: Do they believe this is the real deal?

MARGARET WARNER: They honestly don’t know, Gwen. I talked to officials late this afternoon. They say, we don’t know.

And a glimmer of hope is about as far as President Obama went. And there were a couple of things that I think are noteworthy. One, it makes no mention of Russia drawing back the 40,000 troops they have got massed on the border, which was one of the things that Secretary Kerry was going in there to talk about, or at least that’s what we were told.

Secondly was the incident — or the conversation that I referred to in the tape piece, and I followed up further, which is from one of the heads of one of these armed groups that’s taken over that building in Donetsk.

And, basically, he told both Reuters and me through a translator that, well, let’s — if all illegal occupations have to end, let’s first clear the Maidan, which of course Independence Square in Kiev where the original revolutionary demonstrations took place this winter and protesters still remain, trying to keep the new government honest.

And when I followed up with a question about, well, were you reassured at least that in this agreement it talks about constitutional reforms that will protect the rights of minorities, he said, what we want is federalization in the constitution. That’s a Russian codeword for essentially creating a bunch of little rump states in Eastern Ukraine so disconnected from Kiev that they are easily manipulated by Russia.

GWEN IFILL: So, that means that Russia has the upper hand or at least the leverage in this kind of negotiation?

MARGARET WARNER: Yes, that’s — that’s a really interesting question.

All right, clearly, on the ground, Russia has the leverage. They have got the 40,000 troops. They have got armed people on the ground, both Russians and Ukrainians. And they have got the initiative. The United States and the West have as their partner this — this transitional government in Kiev that is really back on its heels and struggling on many levels, which we have talked about.

However, the administration does believe that the sanctions and the threat of sanctions on a broader scale give the U.S. and the West some leverage. And you heard President Obama say that, when he said — he didn’t say, well, some — something brought Russia to the table, but he said essentially they recognize that their economy, which was already, I think he said stuck in the mud has been hurt by further sanctions and perhaps they are thinking about the fact that further sanctions would damage them more.

GWEN IFILL: But, to be clear, when we hear the word de-escalation, the U.S. hears Russia steps back and takes away its troops, and Russia hears that Maidan is disarmed. They hear a completely opposite thing.

MARGARET WARNER: Certainly, their supporters hear it.


MARGARET WARNER: And it was clear that the president and Secretary Kerry, they are putting the onus, as we heard, squarely on the Russians, right?


MARGARET WARNER: But Lavrov in his press conference said as — Kerry said, well, I made it clear to Secretary Lavrov or Minister Lavrov that, if we didn’t see improvement by the weekend, there will be more costs.

Lavrov told those Russian reporters, as far as we’re concerned, it’s up to Ukraine to make it work.

GWEN IFILL: Oh, great. OK.


GWEN IFILL: So, who in the end has to enforce this deal, assuming it’s an enforceable deal?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, they talk about these monitors from the OSCE.

Now, this is a well-meaning, but I would say toothless group of 57 countries that was created at the end of the Cold War. It includes Russia, all the Europeans and many others. They don’t have any enforcement. They may be the eyes and ears. I think television cameras are going to be the greater eyes and ears.

But the other question is, will there just be a lot of quibbling about language. Right? Does ending all occupations mean that first the pro-Kiev government protesters have to disband? And all of that — first of all, we haven’t gotten a fine, granular reading of these meetings and what the side conversations were, because they are all on a plane.

But that is really where — I don’t want to use the cliché that everyone does, the devil is in the details, but really the administration doesn’t know.

GWEN IFILL: That glitzy call-in show that we saw Putin…

MARGARET WARNER: An annual event for him.

GWEN IFILL: The annual event where he walked on stage and he took questions, including from Edward Snowden, watching that carefully, as we can only assume U.S. officials are, what did they see in it that gave them any reason to hope and what did they see in it that worried them?


Well, I don’t think they saw much reason to hope, because, remember, he did that first. It was almost like he was laying the groundwork for the talks.


MARGARET WARNER: And they saw the same preeny, cocky, confident Vladimir Putin.

They tried to make much of the fact that, aha, he admitted Russian agents were behind what happened in Crimea and they are following the same playbook in Ukraine. But Russian experts in the administration I talked to were very troubled by two things.

One, he started about talking all of Eastern and Southern Ukraine as Novorossiya, which is a term that goes back 300 years, when this whole area from Crimea all the way west, all the way up to Moldova, including the important port city of Odessa, and then all the way east to the Russian border, were part of Russia.

GWEN IFILL: They call that new Russia. That’s what that means.

MARGARET WARNER: Novorossiya, I see — I should have said that.


MARGARET WARNER: That’s what that means. And that was the term.

And he said something about, so, Novorossiya, that was part of Ukraine in czarist times, and that was given away in 1920s. Well, why? Only God knows.

So it sounded to people in the administration as if he is laying that sort of historical…


MARGARET WARNER: … rationale once again.

GWEN IFILL: Margaret Warner, thanks always for clearing it up for us.