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Unsure of Putin’s next Ukraine move, U.S. and E.U. try to send clear sanction signals

May 16, 2014 at 6:17 PM EDT
President Obama and France’s President Francois Hollande agreed that Russia will face “significant additional costs” for undermining the Ukrainian government. Chief foreign correspondent Margaret Warner joins Judy Woodruff to discuss a show of solidarity in Eastern Ukraine against the pro-Russian separatists, efforts to increase dialogue between Kiev and different factions and Putin’s next move.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: President Obama spoke with France’s President Francois Hollande today, and the two agreed that Russia will face significant additional costs for what the White House calls provocative and destabilizing behavior in Ukraine.

Our own Margaret Warner heads back to Ukraine tomorrow, and she joins me now to discuss this week’s major developments in the country’s crisis.

So, Margaret, you’re off.

And, before you go, tell us what the state of play is, because, just a few days ago, the pro-separatists had what they called a referendum and they say a lot of people want independence.

MARGARET WARNER: The immediate results were not promising, Judy. Neither side stood down. The Kiev government kept their forces in the east and pro-Russian separatists who were armed kept the buildings and more people were killed.

But there was a dramatic development which I actually heard about was coming this weekend, which is finally the people of Eastern Ukraine who say to pollsters they actually want to stay part of Ukraine rose up in the form of thousands of miners, steel and coal miners, all employed by the super-rich oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, showed up to join the local police in patrolling these streets, and all they had was their hardhats.

And they quadrupled the size of the local police, who had been totally outgunned and outmanned by the separatists. And the separatists melted away in one city, Mariupol, which is a critical city on the route between Russia to Crimea. So it is risky, however, because the separatists didn’t surrender their weapons. They could come back, regroup, and come back and try to fight these miners, in which case you would introduce civil strife of a kind we haven’t seen before.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Meanwhile, the central government in Kiev has been taking some steps to try to come together with the separatists?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, to at least show, Judy, that they’re listening, they’re listening to Eastern Ukraine, which is saying it wants more autonomy, it wants more local — it wants more decentralization, you know, have the governors elected, get to keep more of their own revenues.

So, they started this roundtable discussion in Kiev on Wednesday. It’s co-moderated by the Pan-European security group OSCE that the U.S. belongs to as well And Russia and Ukraine, and headed by a very prominent German diplomat, Wolfgang Ischinger, former ambassador.

And they did get almost everybody to participate, religious leaders, all the presidential candidates, all — people from all regions, including the East, but not the armed separatists.

So, I asked a U.S. official about that yesterday, because that’s what the headlines were about, and he said really you all are missing the point. They weren’t invited. So, the question is — and then there was one ominous note, which is they’re going to take the show on the road to the East. Tomorrow, they were going to try to meet in Donetsk, but this official said to me yesterday security is an issue. You can’t take all the leaders of Ukraine over there if it’s not secure.

And, sure enough, they have backed off from Donetsk. They’re going to a different city, Kharkiv, but it is still in the East.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Margaret, meantime, you have been you talking to number of U.S. and Ukrainian officials. Where do they see Russia and what Putin wants right now?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Judy, they don’t know. Everyone’s given up trying to figure out what Putin is up to. They think he’s totally running the show, so they discount what the foreign minister says.

There’s no doubt that he pulled back a little last week, as you will recall. He did say, why don’t you delay this referendum on independence?  Maybe the May 25 election is a step in the right direction, but he has not moved his forces. He’s not taken out his so-called specialists who are said to be advising. These are Russians and Russian-trained experts in sort of insurgent operations who are advising the separatists.

So he’s keeping all of his options open. And the big fear is that he will do one of two things, either try to destabilize the situation enough in Eastern Ukraine that this May 25 election which is so key to restore a kind of legitimate government with Kiev looks illegitimate because it’s not representative.

And so the U.S. and Europe are trying to send clear signals, if you do that, you cross a line and we are going to impose stronger sanctions. And as you reported, for instance, Francois Hollande and President Obama said that today. That was the number one takeaway from the readout the White House put out.

So, that’s what I’m going to cover next week, is, can they pull off this May 25 election and what are the forces that are pulling and tugging in both ways?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we will be looking for your reports. You’re going to over the weekend. And we will see you on the air Monday night.

MARGARET WARNER: Look forward to it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Margaret, thank you.