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What’s behind Russia’s spending promises for Crimea

March 31, 2014 at 6:38 PM EDT
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev promised increased money for infrastructure and higher pensions and salaries during a visit to Crimea. Meanwhile, Russia withdrew one battalion from the border region, but Secretary of State John Kerry insisted that the U.S. is looking for more. Chief foreign correspondent Margaret Warner joins Gwen Ifill for an update after a reporting trip to Ukraine.
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GWEN IFILL: Russia sent mixed signals today on Ukraine, following a weekend meeting between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Paris. Russia did pull back one battalion from the border region.

However, Kerry said last night he is looking for more than that.

JOHN KERRY, Secretary of State: Any real progress in Ukraine must include a pullback of the very large Russian force that is currently massing along Ukraine’s borders. We believe that these forces are creating a climate of fear and intimidation in Ukraine.

GWEN IFILL: Meanwhile, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev visited Crimea today and promised increased spending on infrastructure and boosts to pensions and salaries.

Joining us to talk about where things stand today is chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner, who just returned from Ukraine.

Welcome back, Margaret.

MARGARET WARNER: Thank you. It’s great to be back.

GWEN IFILL: So, figure this out for us.

We hear in one moment that Russia is massing troops on the border. Then they’re pulling back a battalion. And then we hear that Medvedev is in Crimea today. Where do things stand?

MARGARET WARNER: I think, in terms of the Russian threat, it’s still very much there, Gwen.

The only encouraging sign was that Putin is the one, President Putin requested this meeting between Kerry and Lavrov in Paris yesterday. But they got nothing out of it. The American officials are saying, well, every day that we’re talking is a day they’re not invading. But this intimidation factor is huge. They can use it against Ukraine. They can use it as a bargaining chip with the United States.

And it even intimidates a country like Moldova, which is west of Ukraine, but has a tiny little breakaway Russian area. So — and then the Medvedev visit was totally a thumb in the eye. Just as John Kerry said this seizing of Crimea is illegitimate, the deputy prime minister, who was with Medvedev, tweeted out of a photo of himself arriving, saying, Crimea is ours, and that’s that.

GWEN IFILL: And he was promising everything to them on this visit.

MARGARET WARNER: Absolutely.

One of these very wealthy oligarchs said to me last week, Putin will spend whatever it takes to make Crimea into Hong Kong, to compare it to struggling Ukraine. It will make his spending on Sochi look like a warmup act.

GWEN IFILL: So there are elections coming up in May. Does Kiev have any counterstrategy to kind of keep any of this at bay?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, that is the counterstrategy.

There’s not really a legitimate president of the government of Kiev because — government of Ukraine because Yanukovych, the Russian-backed president, fled. So Russia can keep saying, illegitimate government, we’re not even talking to it.

If they can — if the Kiev government — their counterstrategy is race against time. Use these eight weeks to start getting economic reforms going with the help of all this bailout money, as you know, from the IMF and E.U., especially U.S., and at the same time, bring about fair and credible elections on the 25th.

They had a couple of good breaks this past two or three days. Two of the big-name reform candidates coalesced behind one, an oligarch known as the Chocolate King.

GWEN IFILL: He actually owns a candy factory.

(LAUGHTER)

MARGARET WARNER: Yes, and the Russians shut down one of his factories in Russia, and forbid his chocolates coming in, saying they were unhealthy.

The other thing was that the Party of Regents, it’s called, which is the very pro-Russian party of Yanukovych, actually had a big battle over who they were going to nominate and nominated someone. And American officials think that’s encouraging, because it makes it harder for Russia to say, well, this election is really illegitimate, doesn’t represent everyone.

They’re going to compete. It’s a guy from Kharkiv, which is one of the areas in the east.

GWEN IFILL: Does the U.S., or does Russia or do the Europeans have a long game in any of this?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, that’s a very big question.

The question is — I mean, with Putin’s long game, I’m detecting, Gwen, it might not surprise you, a newfound humility among U.S. officials in assessing what Putin’s game plan or strategy or tactics are going to be, after being so wrong.

But they do think he’s in for the long haul and that he obviously wants to expand the sphere of Russian influence back into these former Soviet areas. But what he really doesn’t want is a successful, prosperous, Western-looking Ukraine right on Russian’s border or, for that matter, Moldova, a poor country we haven’t thought about forever, who also is thinking about signing the association agreement with the E.U.

GWEN IFILL: So he specifically mentioned a region of Moldova in his communication with the president last week?

MARGARET WARNER: Yes, Transnistria — Transnistria is a tiny little region that actually is totally encircled by Ukraine, but it’s of Moldova.

They are very Russian-leaning. In fact, I read today — I don’t — I haven’t confirmed this — that, in fact, at one point they voted to join Russia and Russia said, no thanks. But Russians have some troops there. And Russia is making noise about, well, we would like a land bridge from Crimea over to Moldova.

And now the commander of Europe, Admiral Breedlove, expressed worry about that. So, the key point is, Putin has many instruments at his disposal other than outright invasion. And that is destabilization of Ukraine economically, politically and in many other ways to make all these states around Russia very antsy.

GWEN IFILL: No one is taking their eye of the ball on this.

MARGARET WARNER: No.

GWEN IFILL: Thank you, Margaret. And welcome home.

MARGARET WARNER: Thank you.