Why has Russia toned down its rhetoric on Ukraine?


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JUDY WOODRUFF: And Margaret joins me now.

So, Margaret, you have been talking to people in both governments, the U.S. and Ukraine. You have been talking to people on the ground. Is the Ukrainian military finally on a roll?

MARGARET WARNER: The picture, actually, privately, they admit both sides, that it’s not as rosy as portrayed.

That is, yes, they finally after really months of laying siege to Slavyansk managed to provoke a panicked retreat by the rebels. And the national security adviser of Ukraine gave a briefing talking about that. They left behind a lot of heavy equipment and weapons. That was clearly a panicked escape.

But even he admitted that the rebels had succeeded by using the locals as human shields for months. He said Donetsk is a whole ‘nother order with all of these people, and he said, it makes it very complicated for us. He also admitted that even though they have sealed the road crossings from Russia, there is all this unprotected — I have been out to that border.

There is all this unprotected forest, he said, fields, rivers in which Russians are still trying to get men and material in.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So despite this sense that there could be, that they’re ready for an assault on Donetsk, you’re saying not yet.

MARGARET WARNER: Not yet.

And a chief adviser to the national security adviser said to me tonight, look, tens of thousands of civilians dead is not what the government wants here. We’re going to have to use a different method and it’s going to be a lot slower. Look how long it took in Slavyansk.

And the U.S. government, which insists it’s not directing this in any way, says they are definitely telling the Ukrainians, do not mount a major assault. You cannot take Donetsk militarily. It will be a disaster and you will have to use other methods.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, what are the other methods? What are the other alternatives for the Ukrainians?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, two, Judy, really.

There’s a military approach, which Parubiy, the national security adviser, laid out in this briefing today. And he said, what we will do is, we’re putting a chokehold around Donetsk, as we did around Slavyansk and Kramatorsk and a lot of these other places, that will prevent resupply for the rebels.

At the same time, we will create civilian corridors, so a lot of civilians can leave if they choose, which is what happened in Slavyansk. About half the population actually left of the 100,000 in the interim, because it was — they had no food, no water. They were in terrible shape.

And he said — and they are basically going to wait for the insurgents to really sabotage themselves, for example, blowing up roads and bridges and railways. Well, you got — I have been to factories with 10,000 workers that take iron ore and coal and produce pipes. If you cut the railway line, those 10,000 people lose their jobs. So…

JUDY WOODRUFF: And they have done some of that.

MARGARET WARNER: And they have done some of that.

And so in the short-term, it may create people who well, at least I will get paid by the separatists, but in the long term, they are — the Ukrainians are really counting on the locals essentially saying, we have had enough. Now, that’s a tall order.

Meanwhile, the U.S. is saying the only answer is through this dialogue. And as you may recall, there’s been this ongoing attempt by the Europeans and Americans to get a dialogue going. The separatists however are saying, well, yes, we’re interested in a dialogue, but only if it’s here in Donetsk or Belarus or Russia. So, in other words — and Putin is not pushing them to really make — get serious about the dialogue.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, and speaking of Putin, you didn’t mention him until the very end now. What is his role, and what is he saying?

MARGARET WARNER: His role continues to be absolutely huge.

The tone has definitely diminished. And both in public statements and I’m told by people who actually understand Russian, on Russian TV, Russian the Russian-language TV that you see in Ukraine, they’re no longer saying, oh, the Ukrainian government is a bunch of fascists and neo-Nazis. They are talking about, don’t kill civilians and we need a dialogue.

So, the question is why, and that remains a mystery to U.S. officials. Is it because of economic sanctions? Is it because a new Pew poll today showing Russian reputation worldwide sinking? Is it because Putin is just playing a clever game and he still wants to keep Ukraine in this sort of unsettled zone, so he will let the stalemate kind of continue in Donetsk?

And nobody knows. Nobody in the U.S. government even pretends to know.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, speaking of sanctions, just very quickly, you mentioned that. What’s — back here, Capitol Hill, there are still members of Congress calling for that. Where does that stand?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, not very far, Judy, so far.

Today, the E.U. slapped sanctions on 11 individuals. But those are just pinpricks. What the U.S. wants is broad sanctions against certain sectors, finance, high-tech, defense. But they want to wait for the Europeans. The big meeting is next week of the European Council July 16. Questions are two.

One, will the Europeans go for it? They will pay a higher economic price, as you know, than the U.S. And, two, if they don’t, would President Obama go it alone?

JUDY WOODRUFF: And watching them act together is I think what people expect.

MARGARET WARNER: Oh, they want.

But if they don’t, you could hear the pressure on Capitol Hill today, with Senator Corker saying, we look like a paper tiger. This administration looks like — threatens and threatens and doesn’t do anything.

So, I think next week, we will see if the president is prepared to act alone if he has to.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Margaret Warner on the story, thank you.

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