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What’s the U.S. role in calming Ukraine unrest?

December 9, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Ukraine Protests
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GWEN IFILL: For more on the latest developments, we turn to a reporter covering the unrest in Ukraine, David Herszenhorn, Moscow bureau chief for The New York Times. He’s in Kiev tonight. I spoke with him a short while ago.

David, it was a pretty vigorous government pushback today. Did that calm the protests at all?

DAVID HERSZENHORN, The New York Times: No. Things have gotten quite ominous here, Gwen. Things are very tense.

Police have surrounded many of the encampments that exuberant protests established throughout the government quarter of the city on Sunday night, after the huge rally of hundreds of thousands of people. There’s a lot of questions of where this goes from here.

Protesters are bracing for a crackdown. We see a lot of diplomatic maneuvering happening now behind the scenes.

GWEN IFILL: We have heard a lot about the demands of the protesters that the government resign. I’m assuming there is no sign of that.

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DAVID HERSZENHORN: That is no indication of that at all.

President Yanukovych has sent a signal that he’s willing to talk with three of his predecessors, the three former presidents of Ukraine, to discuss what might be a way forward here. As part of that, he seemed to create an opening for talks with protest leaders, but then closed that quite quickly as security forces raided the headquarters of one of the main opposition parties.

They have announced an investigation into possible treason charges. Again, the police have moved into formation throughout the city, all sending some fairly dark signals about where things are headed.

GWEN IFILL: The U.S. role — you talk about diplomatic maneuvering. What is U.S.’ role in trying to urge the Ukraine back to the E.U. and away from Russia?

DAVID HERSZENHORN: Well, we saw quite a bit of action today.

Vice President Joe Biden called Viktor Yanukovych, the embattled president of Ukraine, urged him, warned him not to unleash force on the demonstrators. We saw how badly things went when there was a violent police crackdown here in Independence Square on November 30.

At the same time, the assistant secretary of state, Victoria Nuland, was in Moscow pleading with Kremlin officials to help bring this situation to some sort of solution, to help Ukraine find a path back to getting an economic aid package that it needs from the International Monetary Fund.

Of course, Russia is very keen on maintaining its influence here. And they are said to be preparing their own rescue package. But none of that seems possible as long as there are thousands of protesters and thousands of riot police massing on the streets.

GWEN IFILL: Is there anyone in a position to broker some sort of an agreement?

DAVID HERSZENHORN: Well, not right now, it seems, until this unrest settles.

We’re well into the third week of this widening civil disturbance here. Until that calms down, it doesn’t seem that any solution is possible. And the question becomes, what are the protesters willing to accept? As you said, they have demanded the resignation of the government. They would like to see some arrested protesters released.

But there is no sign on Mr. Yanukovych’s side that he is willing to step down himself, that he’s willing to fire the prime minister and the rest of the cabinet. So we are really at a standstill, waiting to see where things turn.

GWEN IFILL: And is there any hope to be found in these proposed roundtable talks?

DAVID HERSZENHORN: Well, again, it’s hard to see how they talk when the party headquarters of Fatherland — this is the party of Yulia Tymoshenko, you know, the jailed former prime minister — were raided today. Their computer services were taken out.

The leader in Parliament of Fatherland, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, said it is very hard to fit a round table in a square jail cell and complained today that really the government is not taking necessary steps to make talks like that fruitful and possible.

GWEN IFILL: A bleak and snowy night in Kiev.

David Herszenhorn of The New York Times, thank you for joining us.

DAVID HERSZENHORN: Thank you.