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U.S. grapples with how to assist Ukraine

April 16, 2014 at 6:20 PM EDT
Chief foreign correspondent Margaret Warner joins Gwen Ifill to analyze the involvement and guidance coming from the U.S., as the Ukrainian military attempts to reclaim territory in the eastern part of the country. They also discuss the upcoming diplomacy talks in Geneva between Secretary of State John Kerry and other officials from Russia, Ukraine and the European Union.

GWEN IFILL: And Margaret joins me now.

As the U.S. watches this, and sees what happened in Crimea with Russia’s invasion and starts to talk about waiting on the Ukrainian government to see what they need, how concerned is the U.S. and how prepared is it to act?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, you have noticed, Gwen, a shift in tone from the administration in the last few days.

For months now, they have been praising, urging the Kiev government to exercise restraint and not provoke the Russians and praising them for doing so. There’s now growing concern, I’m told, that the government in Kiev is appearing weak. Yatsenyuk, the prime minister, said to me in an interview three weeks ago, if they cross our borders, we will fight.

Well, they have crossed the borders. Now you are starting to hear a difference in tone and saying certainly the Kiev government has right to restore law and order. But when the CIA director, John Brennan, went over there in a — quote — “secret mission,” which was immediately, of course, leaked in public, to Kiev, I’m told he took a double message.

He was there to talk about maybe improving some intelligence sharing, how they could set up a better communications network secure from the Russians, but he also urged them not to take any action that would provoke the Russians.

And I talked to an official in Kiev who said they do feel they’re getting these mixed messages from the Americans on this point.

GWEN IFILL: That’s the question, I suppose, which is how are they reacting to it? Do you hear difference in tone now from the prime minister, from the acting prime minister, or do you begin to get a sense that they think the government is weak as well?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, what I hear from people in both Donetsk and in Kiev just today — I talked to a top official in the Donetsk governor’s office who is no longer, of course, in his office — who said, we are still waiting for this great anti-terrorism operation to bear fruit.


MARGARET WARNER: They took that one airfield. But he said the Russians have planned this so well, they use — he said, they use our local people as their shields and their swords. And he described the scene.

He said, they come out, they surround one of these tanks, Ukrainian tanks, and what are the Ukrainian soldiers supposed to do, shoot their own civilians? That would totally escalate the situation.

And then there’s a feeling in Kiev that the Kiev government, it is not just lack of military power, but that they don’t really have the managerial heft. They don’t have control over all the units in the military or in the governments out in the east.

And I detected a loss of confidence in Kiev among influential people I talked to today in their own government.

GWEN IFILL: Here in Washington, there are lawmakers who are some seeking to have some influence as well. And there is a debate, as it seems like there always is, about what the U.S. role should be, up to and including military assistance.

Is that a debate that is penetrating at all at the White House?


The president said to be reluctant to do anything that would turn this certainly into a proxy war between the U.S. and the Russians. And there’s no way the Ukrainians could win anyway. So, they don’t want to give what they call really lethal assistance, like anti-aircraft batteries, things like that. But…

GWEN IFILL: Is that what the Ukrainians are after?

MARGARET WARNER: Oh, they have asked for all kinds of things, from everything from, say, body armor and night-vision goggles, all the way up to much more intelligence-sharing.

So, the U.S. is, I’m told, DOD is now talking to the Ukrainians and there probably will be more of what they call nonlethal, but it will be more than the MREs, meals ready to eat, which is about all the U.S. has provided up until now. It will be not be arms and it will not be ammunition.

But sharing intelligence is a dicier thing. First of all, there’s a strong feeling in the administration and the intelligence community that the Russians have totally penetrated — they worked together like this with the Ukrainian military and intel services. Whatever you share, you’re probably sharing with the Russians.

And one former CIA official said to me today, you know, when we were at the CIA, she said, we regarded Ukraine as one of most important counterintelligence threats we faced. They were damn good. And so we have to be careful here.


Back to Geneva, it seems that every — I hope that John Kerry has put some money down on real estate there, because it feels like he’s there every couple of weeks.


MARGARET WARNER: And it’s very expensive there.

GWEN IFILL: And it’s very expensive there.

So, he goes back. And the European Union and Russia, Ukraine all meet. What is on the table and is anybody optimistic?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, what is interesting here is, I have been hearing about this for two-and-a-half weeks. The administration keeps saying, well, wait until Geneva, we will finally get the Ukrainians and Russia talking to each other.

But then everyone laid out their markers today of what they were going to demand. The Ukrainian foreign minister said they were going to demand not only that Russia stand down at that border, but rescind the takeover of Crimea. Then of course the Russians have been saying it’s all the fault of the Kiev government persecuting Russian speakers.

I’m told, we’re told that Secretary Kerry is going to try to put the Russians to the test in this way. You say what you want or more — it’s more decentralization, more rights for minorities like Russian speakers in Ukraine. Well, here is the Ukraine government ready to discuss it. Let’s have the discussion.

But at the same time, we’re told he is going to have a tough message, which is, you have to de-escalate on the border, you have call on these hooded separatists get out of those buildings. And if not — I don’t know if he will say this tomorrow, but a senior official told me today we could see new U.S. sanctions as early as Friday.

GWEN IFILL: That was the next question I was going to ask you, because they have said before de-escalate, de-escalate, but now they’re saying there may be a hammer to back that up.

MARGARET WARNER: There may be a hammer before you actually fully invade. There are staged sanctions. We can talk about it another time.

But it wouldn’t be the full boat. It would not be Iran-style sanctions, but it would get at people and companies closer to Putin than now.

GWEN IFILL: Margaret Warner, thanks, as always, for all your insights and reporting.

MARGARET WARNER: I always enjoy it, Gwen.