View from Ukraine: Mistrust in government poses challenge to new Kiev leadership


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JUDY WOODRUFF: Despite assurances from Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday that Russia would stop at Crimea, many are concerned about the fate of Eastern Ukraine.

Our chief foreign affairs correspondent, Margaret Warner, arrived in the city of Donetsk this morning. It’s been the scene of fierce, sometimes deadly street battles in the last week between pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian demonstrators.

I spoke to Margaret a short time ago.

Margaret, hello.

First of all, this news that Ukraine is announcing plans to pull all of its troops out of Crimea, what are you hearing?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Judy, this news just broke in the last hour.

So we called the aide-de-camp of the colonel commanding the Belbek military base, which is right near the capital, whom we interviewed in our piece on Friday. And this aide-de-camp said, as far as they know, they have received no orders yet, they’re just still hunkered down.

However, the orders are not surprising from Kiev, in that the acting president said something like a week or 10 days ago they do not have forces to send down to Crimea to rescue Crimea or fight back for Crimea because they will not be able to defend the region where I am now, which is southeastern Ukraine right along the Russian border.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And indeed you are — you have now moved into a different part of Ukraine. How different does it feel, Margaret, from Crimea?

MARGARET WARNER: You know, really different, Judy, and I’m kind of surprised because I have read so much about the pro-Russia demonstrations. They’re actually had more violence here than they have ever had in Crimea, with a demonstrator — pro-Ukrainian common demonstrator killed just last Thursday in a sort of face-off between the two camps in Lenin Square three blocks from here.

But the difference is that, in Crimea, which is 75 percent to 80 ethnic Russian, the pro-Russian fervor was really palpable. People walked around the streets with Russian flags in their lapels, wearing the sort of orange and black symbol of Russian strength and symbolism.

And there was an election going on. Here, it is much more subtle. There is pro-Russian sentiment here. It clearly has been aroused. And in fact, I met with the governor today at some length, this billionaire businessman who has agreed to be the governor here, who says that, off camera, really, it’s generated by these 100 or 200 Russian specialists, he called them, who come in here, they have got the whole playbook, they know what to do.

But they also can get 4,000 or 5,000 people out in a square to demonstrate in favor of closer tries or even union with Russia. So there is something going on here, but you do not have, for instance, Russia or Russian-linked military forces on every corner like the way you did in Crimea. So, as I said, it’s a more subtle story, but it’s one that Kiev is very worried about.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So are you picking up reaction, though, Margaret to Putin’s — the Russians taking Crimea?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, yes, Judy.

At a shopping center tonight, I would say the number one reaction was one of grief. You know, Crimea is a place that Ukrainians love to go to vacation, fabulous hiking, great beaches. And people told us they were actually very sad about this. One man said, “I’m feeling more Ukrainian now that part of my country has been taken away.”

There was a gentleman who said he had lived in Belarussia and he thought it was marvelous the some Crimeans — some Ukrainians, that is, those in Crimea can go back to the mother country. So there’s a split.

The thing that again Kiev has to be worried about is a couple of people we talked to said, you know, I don’t want to be part of Russia, I have relatives there. I don’t want really to live in Russia, but I’m not going to go out and fight for this Ukrainian governor either. Every single leader we have gone independent has been a crook. Let them go out and fight.

And this is really the problem that the Kiev government faces, which is to make people feel they have a stake in Ukraine as an independent country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, given that, what do you think the chances are that Eastern Ukraine could be the next flash point?

MARGARET WARNER: There’s no doubt that the sort of Putin playbook has been followed here.

For instance, Saturday, they have demonstrations in 11 different cities almost at the same time. Now, that is not an accident. And so there is some kind of operation going on here. We haven’t seen it ourselves because we have only been here less than 24 hours. We haven’t seen a demonstration yet.

But what the Kiev government is worried about is that, as I said, they do tap into some pro-Russian sentiment here again, as in Crimea, people who say, well, we watch Russian television, we hear about how much better conditions are there, people get higher pensions and higher benefits and better wages. Whether or not that’s true or not remains to be seen.

But I think that the central government in Kiev does have a legitimacy problem. They have not won all the hearts and minds of the people here in this part of Ukraine, and so, they have appointed, for instance, these wealthy oligarchs, billionaire businessmen, one of whom, Sergei Taruta, we met with at length today, who really have been brought in to try to sort of rally the troops and also restore order, bringing some of the management they have from business to what has been a very unmanageable situation here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Margaret Warner, continuing to do great reporting from Ukraine, thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: Thanks, Judy.

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