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Ukrainian separatist rebels elect new leaders for breakaway republic

November 3, 2014 at 6:35 PM EDT
Separatists held an election in the breakaway regions of Eastern Ukraine on Sunday, asserting their independence from Kiev. Ukrainian officials denounced the vote, saying it was in direct violation of an agreement with Russia. Judy Woodruff gets views on the potential fallout from Andrew Weiss of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Stephen Cohen of New York University.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to a very different election, this one held by pro-Russian rebels in Eastern Ukraine. Winners were declared this morning, putting Washington and Moscow at odds once again, and prompting new questions about Ukraine’s ability to remain intact.

With the voting results in, rebel election officials asserted that the eastern region known as Donbass is indeed independent of Ukraine.

ROMAN LYAGIN, Central Election Commission, Donetsk People’s Republic (through interpreter): Kiev must come to terms with the fact that Donbass is no longer a part of Ukraine. It is self-evident. One can, perhaps, disagree with this, but one cannot argue with this. Whether Kiev recognizes the expression of our will, that is their problem.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sunday’s election followed months of a violent pro-Russian separatist movement in Eastern Ukraine. The breakaway regions consist of the Donetsk People’s Republic, which accounts for about one million people, and the smaller Luhansk, with about half-a-million. Together, they make up 3 percent of Ukraine’s overall population.

As a result of Sunday’s balloting, Alexander Zakharchenko will head the Donetsk People’s Republic, while Igor Plotnitsky will lead Luhansk. Despite no formal recognition by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, Russian officials said the new leaders have a mandate to negotiate with the Ukrainian government.

But officials in Kiev denounced the vote, saying it was in direct violation of a September 5 agreement that the Russians signed.

The U.S. agreed. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki:

JEN PSAKI, State Department Spokeswoman: The United States deplores and doesn’t recognize yesterday’s so-called separatist elections in Eastern Ukraine, nor do we recognize any of the leaders chosen in this illegal vote.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Still, the turn of events echoes an earlier territorial loss, when Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula through a referendum in March. And all the while fighting in the area has raged on, despite the September 5 cease-fire agreement.

On Saturday, a large convoy of military vehicles was sighted near Donetsk. Kiev said they came from Russia. In addition, Russian fighter jets and larger aircraft have lately been crossing into European airspace without warning.

NATO’s top commander, General Philip Breedlove, spoke today at the Pentagon.

GEN. PHILIP BREEDLOVE, Supreme Allied Commander Europe, NATO: What you saw this past week was a larger, more complex formation of aircraft carrying out a little deeper and I would — I would say a little bit more provocative flight path. And so it is a concern.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Back in Kiev, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has called a meeting of his top security chiefs tomorrow.

To discuss what the election means for Ukraine, the U.S. and Russia, joining us are Andrew Weiss. He was director of Russian, Ukrainian and Eurasian affairs at the White House National Security Council. He’s now with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. And Stephen Cohen, he is professor emeritus of Russian studies at New York University and of politics at Princeton University.

And welcome you both back to the program.

Andrew Weiss, to you first. So, the leaders of this group, this rebel break-off group, say they are now independent of Ukraine. Are they?

ANDREW WEISS, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: I think they are stating what we all know, which is that Ukraine has lost — the central government of Ukraine has lost sovereignty and control over this part of its territory. Where it ends up and what happens next is still completely unclear.

Russia doesn’t seem like it’s about to annex the territory. Kiev doesn’t seem like it’s about to launch a new set of hostilities to try to seize it back.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Stephen Cohen, what does independence mean, then?

STEPHEN COHEN, New York University: Well, I think you have got to put this in context and understand where we are.

I think this is a fateful moment, a tipping point even. We’re in a cold war with Russia. The Ukrainian civil war has become a proxy war as well, with the United States and the West supporting the Kiev and now Russians supporting where the Donbass, where these elections were.

Now, Andrew says he doesn’t think there’s much chance that Kiev will launch a new military assault on the Donbass. I wish I were that confident, because there’s a lot of talk in Kiev and even in Washington that this is what Kiev should do.

If Kiev does this, then there will be no negotiations. And there will be not only a resumed war, but I think a more dangerous war that might draw in Russia and the United States. So the question is now, will these elections abet negotiations between what you call these breakaway regions and Kiev or not?

And we don’t know the answer, but I think the answer is not in Ukraine itself. The answer probably is in Washington.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You agree with that, that the actors on the ground there are not who’s going to decide this?

ANDREW WEISS: I don’t.

I think this is, at this point, a dynamic which is being led largely by the Russians. The Ukrainians have tried very hard, in the face of the military defeat that they suffered at the end of August, early September, to find a way to kind of get through this situation, to find a way to have a political settlement where they decentralize the authority of the central government in Kiev and provide greater autonomy to the governments of these regional sections of Ukraine, where the Russians have been stirring up, trying to foster an idea that these parts of Ukraine want to separate.

That’s not the case. What we have seen really is a Ukrainian effort in good faith to have a serious negotiation with the Russians, and the Russians every step of the way since September 5 have basically reneged. And so, at this point, this action yesterday, these pseudo-elections in Eastern Ukraine are just one more illustration that Moscow isn’t serious about a cease-fire. And that’s why the West is reacting so angrily.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, Stephen Cohen, it sounds like you’re saying — you’re saying that Washington, though, has more to say about what’s happening here, that it’s not that — it’s not that the separatists haven’t cooperated in Moscow.

STEPHEN COHEN: Andrew won’t mind if I disagree with him, because we have done so before, and he won’t be surprised.

But I profoundly disagree that the problem is Russia at the moment. Putin, if we want to personalize this, desperately wants negotiation. He doesn’t want more war in the Donbass. And there are many reasons this is so. The problem is, is that there are war parties or war factions in Kiev, in Washington and in NATO that don’t seem to really want these specified negotiations to take place.

Now, the elections create, as you pointed out or suggested, a problem. If Kiev doesn’t recognize the people elected yesterday in Donbass, with whom do they intend to negotiate? With whom do they intend to discuss the future of Ukraine? Both Washington and Moscow have made clear that they do not want to be seen as themselves deciding the future of Ukraine.

So, at the moment, Kiev doesn’t recognize any negotiating partners in the Donbass, and that is a recipe for war.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So — but I hear you saying that you think Ukraine — that Kiev has done everything it could to try to get negotiations?

ANDREW WEISS: I think that’s the case.

And, basically, the Ukrainian military had its back broken at the end of August, early September. So the threat that Professor Cohen is bandying that there’s going to be this renewed Ukrainian assault on the Donbass, I think is — is just — it’s just not really there.

What we have seen is a cease-fire process that from the beginning was very shoddy. We basically set this process up to fail. the Western governments didn’t provide the kind of support that we have seen in the Balkans or other post-conflict areas. And we’re now going into the winter season. And the level of breakdown, the economic collapse, the lack of basic services, the lack of electricity, heating in this part of Ukraine makes it a no-man’s land.

And that to me is the big problem, is we’re going to have a humanitarian crisis that plays out through this winter. It’s going to be very, very, very problematic for both Russia and the West.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let me turn this to Russia, Stephen Cohen, because you said a moment ago that Putin — or you said the Russian leadership, at least a big part of it, wants negotiations.

How then do you explain the military incursion onto Ukrainian territory, what we just heard General Breedlove from NATO, what he called provocative overflights over Western Europe by the Russians?

STEPHEN COHEN: I don’t know how to put this gently. And I don’t want to sound disloyal to the people who represent our countries, but we have had quite a few reports, and not only from General Breedlove, but from the Swedish and the British, about so-called Russian incursions that have turned out not to be true.

And we have heard these for months and months. And now in the last few days, we’re told that the Russians are doing all sorts of provocative military things. Unmentioned is the fact is that NATO is building up its military forces closer and closer to Russia. Do we expect the Russians not to react?

Can we trust these reports that we constantly get out of Brussels and out of Kiev? I think that these are the utterances of people who want to escalate the crisis. What we need now is the kind of leadership that sees war…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

STEPHEN COHEN: … as so dangerous, in the sense that it might bring in Russia and the United States, that all the energy and all the public statements are directed toward negotiations.

I simply don’t agree with Andrew that Kiev has made a good-faith effort toward negotiations or even in maintaining the cease-fire.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We hear you.

You have been vigorously shaking your head no while he’s been talking.

ANDREW WEISS: The reality is, is, if you look back to the recent months, President Obama said in early September that he was committed and the rest of NATO was committed to the defense of its member states, including the Baltics.

Russia, day after President Putin — sorry — day after President Obama visited Estonia, snatched an Estonian intelligence officer, hauled him off to try him in Moscow. They’re testing the West. They’re showing that they’re a great power, that they take their role as a great power very seriously. And they’re trying to see if there’s going to be any pushback. So, the idea that the West is goading the Russians I think is misplaced.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We have to leave it there.

Andrew Weiss and Stephen Cohen, we thank you.

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