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Will Russia intervene in Ukraine?

February 26, 2014 at 6:09 PM EST
Judy Woodruff gets analysis from Fiona Hill of the Brookings Institution and Nadia Diuk of the National Endowment for Democracy about the challenges ahead for finding unity in Ukraine and the chances of Russia stepping in as unrest continues.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: To help us understand all of today’s developments, we turn to Fiona Hill. She’s director of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution. Her latest book is “Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin.”  And Nadia Diuk, she’s spent decades studying and visiting Ukraine and is a vice president at the National Endowment for Democracy.

We welcome you both to the program.

Nadia Diuk, let me start with you.

Giving these divisions that we just are seeing in this report and hearing about elsewhere, can this country hold together, Ukraine?

NADIA DIUK, National Endowment for Democracy: I think what we saw in the film was basically about Crimea.

I think the government that is being put together in Kiev right now really is trying to address the issue of unity. There are people who have been brought into this lineup that will be voted on tomorrow that are from the east of Ukraine. They are new faces.

There was an interesting action today in the western city of Lviv, which is normally known as being pro-Western and very Ukrainian. They introduced a day of speaking Russian, so that the — and the mayor was — the mayor of Lviv was leading this to show that whatever language Ukrainians speak that they feel themselves to be one country and belong to one — one unity.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Pushing for unity.

But, just quickly, you brought up this new government who was introduced today to the protesters in Kiev. What does that say to you about the direction that this group that’s taken over wants to take the country?

NADIA DIUK: I took a look through the names. There are a lot of people there that will be familiar to people who have been watching the Maidan for the last three months. And I think that was a major concern for people there, that somehow the politicians might just take over and sweep away all of the civic activists, all of the people who really have been — in some cases put their life on the line for a better future for Ukraine, to get out the corrupt government.

There are a lot of people from the Maidan here. And it looks like a very serious attempt to combine both professional people — I see that the minister of finances and the economy are actually professional, good, solid people who have been if government before and are very familiar with the kind of…

JUDY WOODRUFF: So people with experience.

NADIA DIUK: With experience and new faces, too, and also slightly different generations, which is also good to see.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Fiona Hill, let’s talk about the Russians, though. They have mobilized. They’re doing what Moscow is calling war games. What does this say?

FIONA HILL, Brookings Institution: Well, this is sending a signal obviously that if the Russians deem it to be necessary, that they’re prepared to intervene in some fashion.

We have to say that we have seen these kinds of exercises many times when there are tensions in different regions, including on Russia’s eastern borders, not always in the West. It’s something that we have seen again time and time when there is some point that the Russians are concerned about. It does not necessarily mean that they’re going to intervene.

And as Nadia has said, the pictures that we’re seeing that are most troubling coming out of Ukraine are in Crimea, the peninsula in the Black Sea, not on this border region where the Russian activity is right now, where the mobilization of the forces and exercises are going on.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You say it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re going to intervene. What would — what would determine whether they do that or not?

FIONA HILL: Well, I think we have to be very careful when we’re looking at this situation.

We’re — it’s only at the — really at the very beginning of a sequence of events now that is going to move us forward in Ukraine. The Russians are standing back. They’re looking at what is happening. And I think it would really be, if it’s deemed that there is going to be some serious threat to their interests directly, Crimea is one of the places where that could happen, because that is the base for the Black Sea fleet, the Russian Black Sea fleet that has a long-term lease on parts of the peninsula for their basing.

And so if there is deemed to be some kind of physical threat to the Black Sea fleet, one could envisage that there might be some kind of action, but not necessarily in the way that we’re perhaps thinking about it right now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The new — the leadership, this new leadership that’s in formation, Nadia Diuk, in Kiev — and you talked about other parts of the country — they have to be very aware of what the Russians are up to.

What would their reaction be if Russia started to make moves toward intervening in some way?

NADIA DIUK: That would then — that would be an international situation. And I think it would go far beyond the beyond the Ukraine.

I think the White House actually put out a statement today where they did reference an agreement where OSCE members really should be informing each other of any…

JUDY WOODRUFF: OSCE being the European security organization.

NADIA DIUK: Yes. Yes, although the Russians have before intervened in countries or threatened to intervene where they see the Russian-speaking people needing protection.

They did — they threatened this a lot in the Baltic states in the 1990s. And it’s — that is one of the pretexts that they could use.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Fiona Hill, what is the impact? How is a statement like the one that came out today, Secretary Kerry saying it would be a terrible mistake, or words to that effect, for the Russians to do something, the White House itself putting out a statement, how is that read by Moscow, do you think?

FIONA HILL: The problem we have right now is we have all kinds of competing narratives about what is happening.

The Russians have also been accusing us, frankly, the United States and the European Union, of directly intervening here as well. So sometimes the statements are not received in the way that we would hope they are in Moscow. This might be seen as grandstanding, in fact, rather than as a very clear statement that there is a red line here.

We were, as Nadia suggested, in this situation before in 2008, before the war with Georgia in August of 2008. Similar statements were made on all kinds of sides. And there was also a situation there where many citizens of Russia, people who were living in the secessionist republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia had assumed Russian citizenship, were deemed to be at risk by the Russian government.

And, again, there was a situation where we saw momentum towards an intervention by Russia, a lot of statements made. So we have been in this kind of very tense, difficult situation before.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, you both saying we’re early in this process. And, Nadia Diuk, you were talking about, of course, the new leadership being introduced, the next government being introduced to the protesters today.

What is it that the people of Ukraine are going to be doing in the days to come, their leadership, that is going to send a signal to the world one way or another about what is going to happen? We know they have got crushing economic problems. They’re looking to the West to help them out, or to Moscow.

NADIA DIUK: Well, firstly, the government was prevented to the people in the Maidan today, but it will — it does actually have to be voted on by the parliament tomorrow.

And there is a good chance that it will — that this list will go through. But the political leaders have at every step of the way needed to check what they’re doing with the people in the Maidan, who through the last three months have been a little bit more radical and a bit more demanding than the politicians.

The people generally want to have justice. They want to see that the corrupt politicians that were leading this country for the last three years are somehow brought to justice and made to account for the crimes that they have committed, the killings that have taken place, and also for a lot of the money that they have stolen, which, this weekend, we saw these rather surreal pictures of what this money was spent on.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Fiona Hill, just for now, I hear you saying the Russians will hold off before they make any dramatic decisions here.

FIONA HILL: Well, it will really depend on what happens on the ground in Ukraine. Again, it depends on how Russia sees its interests being served or threatened in some way by events.

I think we also have to be very well aware that the situation in Ukraine is such that this government may not stick. As Nadia said, they’re trying to balance a whole set of competing interests. We may be in a phase where Ukraine goes through a whole series of successive governments. And this will be a great concern to Moscow as well, of what the composition of future governments will be, what stance they take, not just on domestic issues, but also on their foreign relationships, and if governments seem to veer very quickly towards Europe or towards other sets of relationships, and neglecting the very important ties that the Russians see they have with Ukraine.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That would have an effect.

FIONA HILL: That would have an effect.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Fiona Hill, Nadia Diuk, we thank you.

FIONA HILL: Thank you.

NADIA DIUK: Thank you.