Kiev faces ‘critical choice’ of action as pro-Russian protesters call for referendum in Eastern Ukraine


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JUDY WOODRUFF: David Herszenhorn is covering this story for The New York Times from Moscow. I spoke to him a short time ago.

David Herszenhorn, thank you for talking with us.

First of all, what is the very latest you are hearing from Eastern Ukraine?

DAVID HERSZENHORN, The New York Times: Well, Judy, what we know now is that the government in Kiev faces a critical choice tonight, whether to try to move in on these protesters who have occupied government buildings throughout Eastern Ukraine or take more of a wait-and-see position and not risk provoking the Russian authorities.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How much is known about who these people are who have taken over the buildings and who are participating in these protests?

DAVID HERSZENHORN: Well, not a lot is known. There is a lot of controversy and discussion.

We know in past protests like this, there’s been evidence of demonstrators being bused in across the Russian border. There is some indication that we are seeing a repeat of that, where some of these folks are from out of town; they’re not necessarily locals. On the other hand, we do know there is some genuine pro-Russian sentiment throughout Eastern Ukraine.

So we imagine it’s a combination of those two elements.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And how is it known that some are not Ukrainian? I mean, are — people on the ground there been talking to them?

DAVID HERSZENHORN: Well, there have been some reports today, again, unconfirmed by us at The New York Times, but that there were some demonstrators who wrongly stormed an opera house, thinking it was the city hall.

That would be a clear sign that the folks aren’t local, going into the opera and demanding to speak to the mayor there. But again we have seen in the past evidence of buses bringing in people, cases where the crowds were quite smaller for several days, and all of a sudden magically become large are. This really begun unfolding on Sunday evening. That’s not uncommon, where the weekends bring out a little bit of a larger crowd, give more of an opportunity to bring people out to the streets.

And so what we saw what appeared to be coordinated efforts in at least three cities, in Donetsk and Kharkiv and Luhansk, where folks were storming these government buildings, raising Russian flags. They have done this before, making clear that in many cases they would like to follow in the footsteps of Crimea, secede from Ukraine, and join Russia.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I saw one report where people were being allegedly offered money to join the protests.

DAVID HERSZENHORN: Well, there are always rumors and reports of these sorts of things throughout the former Soviet space. Sometimes, it is conspiracy theories. Sometimes, it is legitimate. It is very hard to know.

Again, what we suspect is that this is a combination of folks who have a genuine sentiment in favor of Russia — they have very apprehensive about the provisional government in Kiev — and then folks who are supporting what is clearly an effort being supported, if not orchestrated, by the Kremlin to stir up unrest to keep the pressure on Sergei Lavrov, the foreign minister, tries to negotiate with John Kerry among others about the future of Ukraine, what the government will look like going forward. JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we know the Russian government officially is denying this. They’re saying they’re not responsible. What are you hearing, though, in Moscow? What are you picking up?

DAVID HERSZENHORN: Well, what we heard from the Foreign Ministry today was a very clear reiteration of their position. They would like to see Ukraine federalized, essentially, the central government weakened substantially, the regions empowered in a way that makes them almost autonomous.

What this suggests is that the Kremlin realizes it doesn’t have a pro-Russia candidate that can win in the May 25 presidential elections in Ukraine. Right now, there is a strong pro-European sentiment coming off of the more than three months of civic unrest in Kiev, as you know, the ousting of former President Yanukovych.

And so the Kremlin, which has many serious interests in Ukraine, has always looked to have a strong hand of influence over the country. They are seeing that it doesn’t really have a candidate that it can count on as an ally that can win.

And so the next step seems to be a strategy by which essentially the government in Kiev would become very weak, the regions would become much stronger. We also know that by annexing Crimea, one of the side effects was that Russia lost a million-and-a-half or more pro-Russia voters from any national election in Ukraine.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You have been mentioning the sentiment, pro-Russian sentiment in Eastern Ukraine. Is it known how deep that runs, how widespread it is? I mean, are there surveys? Is there any kind of an authoritative sense of that?

DAVID HERSZENHORN: No, there really isn’t.

And we understand that there are quite a large number of people who identify themselves as ethnic Russians. Russian is the predominant language in the east of Ukraine. At the same time, Ukrainians are proud of their country. And we find that there are many people as we interview them on the streets who would prefer to see Ukraine as an independent country.

We know there are powerful businessmen, business interests, including the richest man in Ukraine, Rinat Akhmetov, who has said that Ukraine should remain a strong and independent country, that this is important. His base of operations in the east of Ukraine.

So there really is a division of opinion, much different than the situation on the Crimean Peninsula, where public opinion was overwhelmingly in support of Russia, in support of becoming a part of the Russian Federation. Here, we think it would be a much different situation on the ground.

If they were to hold the kind of public referendum that some of these demonstrators are demanding, it’s not clear that it would be the absolute overwhelming support in favor of moving away from Ukraine toward Russia that we saw in Crimea.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally, David, what is known about how many Russian troops are massed on the border there of Ukraine?

DAVID HERSZENHORN: Well, this is an interesting question.

The Pentagon has put out numbers in the tens of thousands, intelligence reports showing that maybe 30,000 to 40,000 troops have amassed on the border. Reporters who have been on the ground there, including some of my colleagues, haven’t seen that big a presence. They have seen some equipment. They have seen helicopters. There is no question that Russia can move a large number of troops quite quickly into the western region of Russia across the border into Ukraine if it chose to do that.

One thing we learned in Crimea was that this is a new Russian military, especially the special forces. The more elite units have been upgraded substantially. They have got new equipment, new training. They’re positioned to do quite a rapid mobilization if necessary.

What we think the West is most concerned about, though, would be a dramatic invasion, a mobilization of tanks rolling into the east of Ukraine, really making a demonstration of Russian force there. And while there have been some reports of a pullback, that some of the troops that President Putin said were engaged in military exercises, that they have left the region, we do believe there is enough of a presence there that if they wanted to move forward, they could do that rather quickly. And the White House has certainly been warning about that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And that certainly would change the picture dramatically, if they did.

David Herszenhorn in Moscow, thank you very much.

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