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Ukraine’s national security secretary: Putin will fail to stop national elections

May 23, 2014 at 6:07 PM EDT
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HARI SREENIVASAN: It was another deadly day in Eastern Ukraine ahead of Sunday’s elections. Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin questioned why his country is being blamed for Ukraine’s unrest, but added that he would respect the outcome of the neighboring nation’s vote.

Chief foreign affairs Margaret Warner — chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner is in Kiev and filed this report.

MARGARET WARNER: In the eastern city of Slavyansk, morning dawned with the sound of artillery fire echoing in the hills.

VLADIMIR LISITSKY (through interpreter): How it is possible not to be afraid? It is scary. During World War II, was it not the same?

MARGARET WARNER: Elsewhere, pro-Russian separatists ambushed a pro-government militia convoy five hours east of the capital, Kiev, killing at least two people.

Today’s new violence came on the heels of yesterday’s rebel attack on a Ukrainian army checkpoint in Volnovakha which killed 16 troops, and another clash in Rubizhne left 20 rebels dead.

Today, speaking in St. Petersburg, Russian President Vladimir Putin labeled the situation in Ukraine a civil war.

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN, Russia (through interpreter): Why did it originate? It originated because President Yanukovych postponed the signing of the association agreement with the European Union. What followed? A state coup supported by our American and European partners. What more? Chaos, and now we see a full-scale civil war.

MARGARET WARNER: Meanwhile, Russian troops continued drills near the Ukrainian border. The Russian Defense Ministry said they will all be pulled back within a few days.

Andriy Parubiy has been leading the Ukrainian government response. The longtime activist rose to prominence during the winter uprising against President Viktor Yanukovych in Kiev’s Independence Square. He emerged as commander of the self-defense forces for the protest camps. Now he’s secretary of the National Security and Defense Council, overseeing operations against the separatists.

I spoke with him earlier today.

Secretary Parubiy, thank you for having us.

President Putin said today, speaking to global corporate leaders, that Ukraine was in the midst of a full-blown civil war. What do you say to that?

ANDRIY PARUBIY, Secretary, Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council (through interpreter): All announcements by Putin about Ukraine were and remain complete lies.

Every time he’s announced Russian troops were retreating, in fact, more active operations were begun by the terrorists. I would like to say that the key to the problem in Ukraine is not in Ukraine, but it’s hidden in the Kremlin and with Putin. There is evidence at the special forces of Russia are acting on the territory of Ukraine and Russian money is acting here, and the full coordination of the terrorists is coming from the Kremlin and from Putin.

When we talk about fighting the terrorists, we have to understand the most important thing is not just to localize certain terrorists. The most important is to localize the center, where their coordination and finance comes from. That’s why I want to say that our crisis is not in Slavyansk and not in Luhansk and not in Donetsk. Our crisis in the Kremlin.

We have to understand that the crisis of Ukraine is a global crisis and the whole world has to unite in an anti-Putin coalition to stop him because if we don’t stop him today, it’s unknown where his aggressive plans will be directed tomorrow.

MARGARET WARNER: Yesterday, just three days before the election, you had 16 of your Ukrainian soldiers killed in Eastern Ukraine. Today, one of your battalions got caught in a terrible firefight, lots of wounded. Are you losing control in the East?

ANDRIY PARUBIY (through interpreter): No, in this situation, it is the opposite. We are closing a ring of containment around these groups of terrorists who acted today in some parts of Luhansk and Donetsk regions.

Yesterday, they tried to break through that ring, but they were not able to burst through and had to retreat. Now, before the elections, they are trying to intensify their actions, but in fact Putin’s overall plan regarding Ukraine is failing.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, we were just in that region, in Donetsk, and just yesterday, we filmed the takeover by armed men of one of these election commission officers. Half of them in that whole region have now been somehow disrupted. Do you think you’re winning this?

ANDRIY PARUBIY (through interpreter): We understand that there are regions where the situation today is not stabilized. In Donetsk and in Luhansk and in Slavyansk, we understand that elections are under risk there.

Nevertheless, we can guarantee that fair and free elections will take place in all other regions and even parts of Donetsk and Luhansk.

MARGARET WARNER: In the two eastern-most regions, Donetsk and Luhansk, you have got pro-Russian separatists who have taken over major government administration buildings. Why can’t you take them back?

ANDRIY PARUBIY (through interpreter): Because the tactic being used was declared by Putin himself on TV some time ago. And, in Ukraine, that is using civilians, women and children, during the operations of insurgents.

When they seize buildings, civilians are among them, women and children. That makes the work of our special forces the army more complicated.

MARGARET WARNER: So, in other words, you’re prevented from acting because civilians will be killed?

ANDRIY PARUBIY (through interpreter): The restraint on our anti-terrorist units is not letting citizens die. Our logic is that all these people are citizens of Ukraine, and for us, the death of any people who just happen to be on the territory of the military operations is unacceptable.

So, in localizing these hot spots, we do things in such a way that people who come in with weapons are punished under Ukrainian law, but we avoid victims among civilians as much as possible.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, in fact, civilians in the east say when you have come in — they mention Odessa and Mariupol — and people have been caught in the crossfire, it’s inflamed anti-Kiev feeling in the East. Is that a serious problem? Are you aware of that?

ANDRIY PARUBIY (through interpreter): We understand that sometimes our actions can cause resistance among certain parts of the population, but there are a lot of people in Luhansk and Donetsk regions who greet the Ukrainian army’s arrival and consider that it is their protection from the terrorists who can appear any day in their city.

MARGARET WARNER: So, finally, let’s pitch forward to after the election. Military and political commanders of the Donetsk People’s Republic, the separatists, told us they don’t care what happens in tomorrow’s election, they’re not going anywhere. They have got their own country now.

The governor of Donetsk said, after the election, all bets are off, it’s time to move those people out and they have got to give up their weapons.

Is your government ready, once there’s a newly elected president, to in fact go and clear them out?

ANDRIY PARUBIY (through interpreter): I’m sure that the Ukrainian government after the presidential elections will continue its actions to protect our citizens, because any research shows that those, as you say, leaders of the Donetsk Republic, so-called, do not have the support of society.

More people are supporters of a united Ukrainian state. Of course there were problems in Ukraine and exacerbated by Yanukovych, who tried to split Ukraine. And now Russian insurgents are using those emotions for their actions on the territory of Ukraine.

But I’m sure that after the election of a new president, certain psychological changes will take place in our situation in Donetsk and Luhansk. The main purpose of Putin, to not let the elections happen, will fail. And I am sure after the election, faster and more effectively, we can eliminate the problems that exist in parts of our country today.

MARGARET WARNER: Thank you, Mr. Secretary.

ANDRIY PARUBIY: Thank you.