De-escalating unrest in Eastern Ukraine is delicate challenge for Kiev

Ukrainian security forces managed to regain power in Kharkiv, yet pro-Russian demonstrators have held onto control of government buildings in two other cities in the country’s east. Chief foreign correspondent Margaret Warner joins Judy Woodruff to discuss the swift pro-Russian escalation and obstacles faced by the Ukrainian government.

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    And Margaret joins me now.

    So, Margaret, how much of an escalation is this on the part of these pro-Russian elements?


    I think it's a pretty serious one, Judy.

    You know, right after the Crimea vote, you had a flurry of little look-alikes with groups taking over Parliament buildings in these eastern regions. But they were quickly beaten back. New governors were appointed and they brought in forces. And they left peacefully. No blood was shed.

    And since then, they have just had demonstrations every weekend out in the plazas. This weekend was qualitatively different. These gangs came in. They stormed these buildings. There are suspicions that the police kind of let them do it.

    And then, at least in Donetsk — I talked to a couple of chief aides to the governor today, said now armed people are control of this being, the very building where he and I had spoken. And they're really absolutely obdurate. They have also done things like trash the building, steal computers, trash computers, steal personal effects.

    In one building, as we just reported, they're holding people hostage. So it is a quality that's — that's more violent. And they are armed. And this one fellow said to me, you know, Ukraine is not a heavily armed country, so they must be getting these arms from criminal gangs or from across the border.

    And the theory is that Putin has been somewhat stymied at the border in terms of moving troops in, so he's really intensifying this effort to create a pretext from within that would allow him to then come in, as Secretary Kerry said, and say, well, I'm here to save the Russian speakers of Eastern Ukraine.


    We see the Ukrainian governor did take back the administrative building in Kharkiv, but, overall, how is the government handling this?



    Well, on the security side, the local governors are letting Kiev do it. And unlike before, where they didn't give a lot of assistance, this time, they have really redeployed some security forces, their secret service into Eastern Ukraine, and the three top security officials, the interior minister, who was in my piece, and two other top ones, each one went to one of these regions and they are running the operations.

    And the game plan is, one, to identify the units they think they can trust, because, remember, the Donetsk region is where Yanukovych, the former president who fled, he's from. And so, as was described to me, he has deep tentacles, this multi-gazillionaire oligarch, in all the security services.

    And so they — they feel they need Kiev's help to come in and do this. And I think you're going to see them try to take back each one of these buildings. But it is very delicate, because if they do it with any bloodshed, then that, too, creates a pretext.


    And this comes while the Ukrainian government, trying to get the country back on track economically and in other ways, this has to be damaging.


    Oh, definitely.

    They say it isn't damaging. The governor wasn't in the building at the time. He's now in another building controlled by Kiev and he's doing his work. However, the most telling anecdote I heard — you know, as you know, the government in Kiev, as you said, trying to get the IMF reforms in place, get an infusion of foreign Western capital to do infrastructure projects and a lot of things that this region in particular needs.

    So the governor was hosting, this weekend, a major Polish official and a major South Korean official to talk about big investments they could make, a Hyundai plant in Donetsk. Well, and then this erupts? So it is — it definitely doesn't send the right message, and it makes it harder for them to stay on that track, not to mention to get to the elections on May 25, which is another important political milestone.


    So, whose move — who is — whose turn is it to move next and what do people expect?


    I think it is the security forces' turn to make further moves.

    What they are going to try to do, as it was described to me, is they're offering negotiations, though these groups are pretty obdurate. They're going to try to things like maybe turning off the water and the electricity to a couple of buildings, try to persuade them to leave, but they will be looking for opportunities to do in these other two places what they did in Kharkiv.

    The fear is one the part of people I talked to in Donetsk and Kiev is that one person said, you know, we may be facing terrorism. And I said, what do you mean? He said, you remember Putin staged a terrorist attack in Russia as a pretext for starting the second Chechen war. And now that there's more violence and there are more weapons, we are very worried that something like that could erupt.


    And then very quickly, Margaret, what about the international response? What are other countries and organizations saying?


    Well, you heard Secretary — we didn't run this, but Secretary Kerry pushed back at the hearing today when Senator McCain said, you should be arming the Ukrainian military.

    The U.S. has — and the E.U. are putting their money on helping Kiev make the economic transition, that that is how you create an attractor for Ukrainians to feel their future lies with the West. And, I mean, there is logistical and some intelligence help being given.

    But the Ukrainian military and security forces are to a great degree on their own. The big hope is to have at least this meeting, which I referred to at the end of the piece, where finally the Russians would actually sit down with the Ukrainians, whom they won't even admit as a legit government.

    Apparently, I just got an e-mail three minutes ago saying that actually is going to happen next week.


    Huh. Well, you were just there, and now things are moving very fast.


    Very fast.


    Yet again.

    Margaret, thank you.

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