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In Ukraine, why resistance is growing to a negotiated settlement with separatists

September 2, 2015 at 6:30 PM EDT
As another Eastern Ukraine cease-fire is tested and protests test the government in Kiev, chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner joins Judy Woodruff for an update on the diplomacy behind the scenes, the possibility of a negotiated settlement and how the Ukrainian people are responding.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And Margaret joins me now.

Margaret, welcome.

So, how significant is this cease-fire? You pointed out it was broken almost right away.

MARGARET WARNER: It was, though, in the view of U.S. officials, it is holding enough to be holding.

And so they want the Europeans now, who are really handling these negotiations, to push Putin very hard, Russian President Putin very hard, to keep up his end of the bargain, which was, in return for the constitutional changes that Poroshenko is pushing for the East, is to withdraw Russian heavy weapons and troops from Ukraine.

The question is, what’s the incentive for Putin to do this? If Putin’s objective is to keep Ukraine weakened and divided, make it very, very hard for them to become the kind of progressive, forward-looking European nation they want to, at low cost, he’s succeeding. And the only answer the Americans can come up with, and the Europeans, is, well, maybe the sanctions are beginning to bite, maybe he will decide he has to keep up the military — carry out the military side of the deal.

But they do not think that will end Putin’s maneuvers to undermine Ukraine.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you were reporting on this vote in Parliament over the last couple of days, devolving authority back to the East. Violent protest, what was driving that?

MARGARET WARNER: I think, Judy, this was actually the more disturbing thing that has happened in the last week or two. And that is that there is growing resistance to the idea of a negotiated settlement with the Russians.

We have had a growing kind of radicalization in the western part of Ukraine as this war has ground on and on. And so, on its face, there were these two fringe far-right parties who did very poorly in the elections. Svoboda is one. The other is called the Right Sector.

And people call them skinheads, thugs. Putin calls them Nazis. And they were behind the actual event. But the deeper problem for Ukraine is that there is growing unhappiness with the idea of a negotiated settlement and the attitude of these hard-right parties is, why should we give anything to these separatists, when they continue killing — you know, there’s been hundreds killed since this Minsk agreement.

And that is — they’re calling for all-out war right now on the eastern front. And that, of course, is fantasy. If the Ukrainian forces were to try to step up the war, the Russians and their proteges would crush them. But it is a very persistent theme from them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, is it clear what the broader Ukrainian public thinks?

MARGARET WARNER: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Yes, there were the demonstrations, but what do most people think?

MARGARET WARNER: So, there are polls showing that while the most extreme rhetoric has not resonated yet — the leader of one of these parties, Yarosh, says, well, now it’s time to go after our internal enemies, meaning President Poroshenko.

That is not hitting the public. But this sense that they are being played as fools by Putin, that Ukrainians are dying — those stories are in the paper every single day — that this whole idea of a negotiated settlement is flawed.

The problem with that is that, since neither NATO, the U.S., the Europeans aren’t willing to enter and help Ukrainians militarily, a negotiated solution is the only solution for them. So it puts the Ukrainian government in a difficult position. Plus, the public is furious because economically life is very hard.

All these things they had to do to meet IMF requirements, for example, or get their debt restructured has meant end of subsidies and people pay more for electricity and fuel. So, all in all, it’s kind of a stew of discontent. And, again, if the aim of Putin is also perhaps to so destabilize this government that the public will essentially kick them out, they will put in someone, or try to, more amenable to Russia.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just quickly, the U.S., what is the U.S. role in all of this? What do U.S. officials you talk to think is going to happen?

MARGARET WARNER: Two things, Judy.

The U.S. — we have seen multiple phone calls from Vice President Biden, Secretary Kerry, even the president to Ukrainian government officials. They have been mentoring them on how to handle the economic issues and so on.

But they recognize that, again, in the absence of the U.S. being willing to step up military assistance, give true military assistance, that Ukraine is, to some degree, on its own, and one senior official said to me they have to play survivor, which I think the model is outwit, outplay and outlast your opponents with a little help from the U.S. and the Europeans.

But it is not — that is not the image of a powerful alliance that can rescue Ukraine.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Another tough one.

MARGARET WARNER: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Margaret Warner, we thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: Always a pleasure.

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