Is Putin trying to diffuse the Ukraine crisis?

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that he has pulled his military forces from Ukraine’s border, and called on pro-Russian separatists to postpone their planned secession vote. However, the White House imposed further sanctions, saying there’s no evidence of the retreat. Judy Woodruff gets insight from Angela Stent of Georgetown University and Stephen Cohen of New York University.

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    Russian President Vladimir Putin made some surprise statements today over the crisis in Ukraine. This afternoon, he called on pro-Russian separatists to postpone their planned secession vote on May 11. He announced that he has withdrawn Russian military forces from Ukraine's border, and he even offered conditional support for national elections in late May, which he had previously rejected.

  • VLADIMIR PUTIN, Russian President (through interpreter):

    I want to underline that the planned presidential elections in Kiev are a move in the right direction, but they won't solve anything if all of the citizens of Ukraine don't understand how their rights will be guaranteed after these elections are held.


    A White House spokesman said this afternoon that there is no evidence that Russian troops have pulled back, and the U.S. imposed further economic penalties on Moscow.

    To help us walk through what these new developments mean, I'm joined by Angela Stent. She's director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at Georgetown University. She has served in the State Department and at the National Intelligence Council. And Stephen Cohen, he's professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at New York University and Princeton University.

    And welcome you both back to the program.

    Angela Stent, to you first. Do you believe that the Russians are pulling back their troops from the border?

  • ANGELA STENT, Georgetown University:

    I think we don't know that yet.

    But I still think that the announcements that President Putin made were an important step in the right direction to defusing the crisis, particularly discouraging a referendum from taking place next Sunday and also given this continued — support for the election on May 21 in Kiev.

    So, I think the gesture was important, the words were important. I think we have to see whether they really do withdraw their troops. But I think he realizes that the situation was really spiraling out of control in Eastern Ukraine with increasing violence and casualties.


    Stephen Cohen, do you think they are pulling the troops back?

  • STEPHEN COHEN, Princeton University:

    I have this way of knowing.

    But Putin addressed this question. He said, if you don't believe it, speaking to the United States, you can check it out. You have your space surveillance.

    There's something more. I haven't seen the Russian text, but the English translation by the Russians, which is usually reliable, uses the past tense. He says, we have withdrawn our troops. That means, we are not doing it now or we're going to do it tomorrow. We have done it.

    So someone here is misleading someone, which reminds us that as we move toward the possibility of war with Russia, the entire atmosphere is full of so much misinformation, we have to sort it out. But I do not believe that Putin would lie about something this important.


    Do you think he could be not telling the truth and saying what is not going to happen?


    I mean, he told Chancellor Merkel a few weeks ago that Russia was withdrawing troops, and there's no independent verification that any of that happened.

    I mean, again, none of us know. I mean, it's possible that they will withdraw somewhat, and they are apparently conducting other exercises, but we really don't know.

    It's possible that he's not telling the truth, but I think if — again by endorsing the May 25 election and by pulling back on the referendum that is supposed to take place on Sunday, I think he is signaling that Russia does want to have a say in what happens after this May 25 election and it's willing to talk.


    Stephen Cohen, how do you read these other new declarations by Putin, whether the troops are moving or not?


    Well, that's why. We have to read the whole statement. It's not very long. It looks like he spoke for about five or six minutes.

    But he said many important things. First, he reiterated the Russian position that we, the United States, created this crisis, along with Europe, and that Russia is aggrieved. Then he went on to say, though, I watched the video, the footage of what happened in Odessa on Friday. And that was a horrific event.

    And you have to remember for people who live in Russia and Ukraine in particular, it evokes memories of people burning during World War II, not just Jews, but the fact that the Nazis in those territories locked people in buildings and burned them to death.

    I have talked to Russian friends in Crimea and in larger Russia. They're all horrified by what they saw. And so was Putin. And so he said, I'm going to take a step to try to stop this. We have withdrawn our troops, or pulled them back from Ukrainian border.

    I think we have to assume that's true, unless surveillance says he's not telling the truth. And then he clearly wants two things in return, which need to be mentioned. And we will see if he gets them. He wants the United States to tell Kiev to pull its military forces out of Eastern Ukraine.

    And then he revealed something I didn't know. Maybe Angela knew it, maybe you folks knew it. But he said that in a phone call with German Chancellor Merkel, she had proposed a roundtable of all the aggrieved parties in Ukraine — that's Kiev, that's Western Ukraine, that's Eastern Ukraine — to talk about the future of Ukraine, which means a new constitution.

    And he says that he agrees where that and he will support that. So, you have, it appears, if he's telling the truth, Germany, Europe more generally, and Russia in favor of this roundtable. Now, the United States, so far as I know, is silent, and, in fact, when Merkel was here — wasn't it just a few days ago?




    I don't recall it being part of what they reported they discussed.

    So, if Putin is telling the truth, the United States seems to be dragging its feet. I don't know, but that's the impression we have.


    Well, we clearly need some more clarification.

    But, Angela Stent, how do you — why is Putin doing this? How do you read…


    Well, I think part of it is, you know, the threat of further sanctions.

    Both Chancellor Merkel and President Obama said that if Russia interfered with the May 25 election, there would be tougher sanctions. They might be unilateral or they might be Europe and the U.S. And sanctions are already having an effect on the Russian economy. They're deterring investors from new projects, from banks from lending money.

    So, I think that's one clear reason why he did that. And, also, there is the possibility that, after the election — I mean, I agree that everyone will sit down, but I think the sequencing is important here.


    This is the May 25 election.


    The May 25 election.

    The issue of Ukraine's future and neutrality is on the table. And the Ukrainian politicians themselves are willing to discuss this. And the question of constitutional change, devolving more power to the regions, not a federal state in the way that Russia wants it, but certainly giving them more autonomy.

    So, there is room for bargaining, there is room for negotiation, but you do have to have everyone at the table.


    That's what Steve Cohen was referring to a minute ago.

    Steve Cohen, do you think sanctions are part of what is driving any possible change of heart or change of thinking on Putin's part?



    I think Angela is wrong on this. I agree with much of what she says, but not that. The sanctions hurt, but this issue of Ukraine is existential for Russia. Everyone who is involved in policy-making see this as essential to Russia's future, I mean, its future in the long term, ~what happens in Ukraine.

    And if it costs a few billion or even trillion dollars, Russia will not back off. I think that what flipped Putin into a more service mode is that he is convinced that we are a couple spits from civil war in Ukraine, and that if Ukraine goes into civil war, Russian and American or NATO troops may be drawn in. That's what he said. That's what — that's my reading of the situation, too.

    And I think sanctions are a sidebar, a secondary issue.


    Why do you disagree?


    Well, because I think that the civil war, the incipient civil war that already exists in Eastern Ukraine is partly supported by Russia.

    Now, I don't think Russia dictates what the separatists do, but they — Russian forces, special forces have obviously been involved there. And I think now they are realizing maybe this has gone further and the violence has gone further. I don't think we're on the brink of a war between the West and Russia.

    But I think there are serious concerns, but I also do think that the effect on the Russian economy is palpable. And it's going to get much worse if there are tougher sanctions.


    Steve Cohen, her point is if the Russians are behind the unrest in the east, it doesn't make sense that they would be worried about civil war.


    All right, let me make a theatrical statement, because we don't have time to really debate this.

    There are Russian agents in Eastern Ukraine. There are also American agents and Lithuanian and Polish and God knows what other agents there. But to say that the Russians created this unrest in Eastern Ukraine and that Putin can call it off tomorrow, that he can go on Russian or Ukrainian television and say, guys, vacate the buildings, go home, hand over your weapons, that is a fantasy.

    Moreover, it under — it obscures what lies at the bottom of this entire Ukrainian crisis. And that's the conflicts in Ukraine. Ukraine had one state in February. It was never one country. And that was — we're now seeing. We're now seeing two or three Ukraines at war with each other. Putin doesn't control this.

    And I think maybe, maybe one reason he spoke today is, he knows Russia can't control the situation either.


    We hear you both, Stephen Cohen, Angela Stent, and we thank you.

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