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As Unrest Grows, Is Ukraine Paying the Price of U.S.-Russian Ties Stuck in Cold War Era?

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The United States and the European Union have imposed new sanctions on Russia that target individuals and companies linked to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle. The moves come as the crisis in eastern Ukraine faces continued chaos. On Monday, pro-Russian separatists seized a new town and continued to detain seven European monitors. The mayor of the Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, was shot in the back and is now in critical condition. Ukraine’s government and Western powers have accused Russia of orchestrating the unrest as a pretext for an invasion. We host a roundtable discussion with three guests: Christopher Miller, an editor at Kyiv Post, who has been based in Ukraine for four years; Jack Matlock, the U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1987 to 1991; and Nina Khrushcheva, a professor of international affairs at The New School, and author of forthcoming book, “The Lost Khrushchev: Journey into the Gulag of the Russian Mind.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AARON MATÉ: The U.S. and European Union have imposed new sanctions on Russia amidst heightened tensions in eastern Ukraine. The U.S. sanctions target seven Russian government officials and 17 companies linked to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle. State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki told reporters the U.S. still has a, quote, “tool box of steps” it can take against Russia.

JEN PSAKI: Obviously, this morning we’ve been making clear—the United States has been making clear that it would impose additional costs if Russia—on Russia, if it failed to live up to its Geneva commitments and failed to take concrete steps to de-escalate the situation in Ukraine. Consequently, today, this morning, the United States is imposing targeted sanctions on a number of Russian individuals and entities, and restricting licenses for certain U.S. exports to Russia. Can Russia still de-escalate and take steps? Absolutely they can. Do we still have a tool box of steps we can take? Absolutely, we do. And we’re working in close consult—in close lockstep with the Europeans on this, as well.

AARON MATÉ: One day after the U.S., the European Union followed suit today with new sanctions on 15 more people suspected of having a direct link to the Ukrainian unrest. These moves come as the crisis in eastern Ukraine faces continued chaos. On Monday, pro-Russian separatists seized a new town and continued to detain seven European monitors.

Meanwhile, the mayor of Ukraine’s second-largest city is in critical condition after an attempt on his life. Kharkiv Mayor Hennadiy Kernes was shot in the back on the outskirts of the city, just 20 miles from the border with Russia. It’s unclear who was behind the attack. This is a surgeon who treated Kernes, followed by Kharkiv’s deputy mayor.

DR. VALERIY BOYKO: [translated] He is stable at the moment, but his condition is still severe, even closer to very severe, as it usually is with these types of injuries. When it comes to these types of injuries, the bleeding is usually rather strong. We’re talking about up to one-and-a-half liters of blood in total.

DEPUTY MAYOR MIKHAILO DOBKIN: [translated] If somebody thinks that this is the way to dramatically improve the situation, he is wrong. Any aggression will only increase confrontation.

AMY GOODMAN: The armed separatists in eastern Ukraine are seeking independence or annexation with Russia. Ukraine’s government and Western powers have accused Russia of orchestrating the unrest as a pretext for an invasion. All this comes as the Pentagon says Russia’s defense chief assured U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in a telephone call Monday that Russia would not invade Ukraine. Meanwhile, the country continues to prepare for its May 25th presidential election.

For more, we’re joined by three guests. We go to Kiev via Democracy Now! video stream to speak with Christopher Miller, editor at the Kyiv Post, who has been based in Ukraine for four years.

From Princeton University, Jack Matlock served as U.S. ambassador to Moscow from 1987 to 1991. He was the last ambassador to the Soviet Union, the last U.S. ambassador. He’s the author of several books, including Superpower Illusions: How Myths and False Ideologies Led America Astray—and How to Return to Reality, Autopsy on an Empire: The American Ambassador’s Account of the Collapse of the Soviet Union and Reagan and Gorbachev: How the Cold War Ended.

Here in New York, Nina Khrushcheva is with us, professor of international affairs at New School. She’s author of the forthcoming book, The Lost Khrushchev: Journey into the Gulag of the Russian Mind; it’s out in a few weeks.

Let’s go, though, directly to Kiev to speak with Christopher Miller. Can you explain what is happening right now in Kiev?

CHRISTOPHER MILLER: Sure. So, the unrest is continuing. Things have been relatively calm today, all things considered. Yesterday we did see the takeover of another city administration building and, of course, the apparent assassination attempt of a mayor in the second-largest city of Ukraine. People believe that the attempt on his life was meant to further destabilize the situation. Obviously there are lots of different rumors flying around as to who might be behind it. Today, the government is taking steps it believes could help the situation. They are considering holding a referendum, in line with the elections on May 25th. It hasn’t been decided yet, but we’re hearing that talks are underway. Meanwhile, the separatist groups in eastern Ukraine, in these flashpoint cities of Kharkiv and Luhansk, Donetsk and Slovyansk, are considering holding unilateral referendums in their city on May 11th, in line with May holidays and Victory Day, which is a very big celebration here in the former Soviet Union.

AARON MATÉ: And, Chris Miller, how serious is the situation in eastern Ukraine compared to what happened in Crimea? In Crimea, Russia has now at least admitted that it was their forces that were sent in. There seems to be, though, much more uncertainty around who these separatists are in eastern Ukraine. What is happening right now, and how does this compare to what we saw in Crimea?

CHRISTOPHER MILLER: Well, it’s similar to Crimea, in the sense that it is this kind of slow-moving takeover of pro-Russian forces. But the differences are Crimea was controlled by pro—or, I’m sorry, by Russian soldiers, as we know now, and they were very well disciplined and orderly. There was really a lack of violence. We saw some skirmishes, and there was at least one or two deaths, but, overall, you know, it was done with a sense of professionalism, really, whereas what we’re seeing in the east now is the seizure of buildings, the takeover of entire cities, by men that are not so well trained, who might not have a military background, some that do, that are, you know, militia forces who have taken over police stations, are now armed with with automatic weapons, RPGs. We have seen some evidence that Russians are involved, not necessarily Russians who are members of Russia’s military, but Russian citizens who are a part of militia groups over there and have come into Ukraine to help lead this separatist movement.

AMY GOODMAN: Why was the mayor of Kiev—rather, the mayor of Kharkiv, why was he targeted?

CHRISTOPHER MILLER: Well, he is what people here deemed to be a political chameleon. He has flip-flopped a number of times in the last few months. He was a supporter of the former President Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted on February 22nd, I believe. He fled the country overnight that night and was thrown out of office. He has since popped up in Moscow. He was also a member of the president’s political party, the Party of Regions, which is the ruling party, and now the opposition party, here. He has—well, during what was the Euromaidan revolution in December, January and February, he was a staunch critic of the revolution and spoke out against it. But once the president was ousted from office, he came out in favor of a united Ukraine. At the same time, he did speak for some of the separatist movements that had popped up, at least until the separatists lost control of the city administration building in his city. Once they were removed by police forces, he flopped again and said that he did support a united Ukraine and not necessarily separatism, but a federated state. So he’s angered people on both sides, really, making him a target by numerous groups. It’s unknown now, you know, who’s behind it. You know, I—

AMY GOODMAN: Who shot him.

CHRISTOPHER MILLER: Yeah, yeah, who shot him. You know, they believe it’s a lone sniper. A close friend and presidential candidate, Mikhailo Dobkin, actually came out today and said that he believes it was forces from Euromaidan that worked to assassinate him. But at this point, it’s not clear exactly who was behind the shooting.

AMY GOODMAN: Nina Khrushcheva, the sanctions that have been posed on Russian individuals, 17 companies, seven Russian individuals, on the oil company, the head of the oil company, but not the head of the gas company—talk about the significance of the U.S. and the European approach to dealing with Russia now.

NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: Well, the U.S. approach is much more forceful. I mean, we can say that the U.S.—I mean, there are various schools of thoughts—the U.S. didn’t go far enough because it targeted individuals, but, for example, the Rosneft company wasn’t itself targeted; Igor Sechin, the head of it, was. So there is a question how far the U.S. should have gone, and did they go far enough? On the other hand, the U.S. says that they still have a toolbox to push Russia with, and maybe that’s why they decided that, you know, for now it’s forceful enough, but not completely forceful.

The EU sanctions are not as forceful, and they’ve been the story all along, because we do know 25 to 30 percent of Russian energy goes to Europe. And there are a lot of other businesses in England. There is a lot of businesses in Germany. Trade is very, very important. Russia is a very important European partner. So they didn’t go far enough. And I found it very interesting that they actually targeted people who were directly involved in racking up those protests, the people who are—people in Donetsk, people who are security forces in Donetsk, which in some ways even more symbolic than we would like, because I think it is important to target those people. I don’t imagine that they are really shaking in their boots that they cannot go to Germany, for example, or cannot ski in the Alps. So, it is an important gesture. I don’t know how far enough it is going. I think the important person that—very important on both sides is Dmitry Kozak, the prime minister—deputy prime minister, who is allegedly responsible for the Crimean takeover, although there are other schools of thoughts, the first—in the first round of sanctions. Surkov is another person who was responsible, and he was already sanctioned. So, these are very important gestures.

I do, actually—I’m a huge fan of sanctions. I think that they go much, much further than that, because it does seem that when this—there is evidence that Russian businesses are going to suffer from the sanctions, the Russian rhetoric somewhat tones down, although, of course, now we hear that it’s we’re back to 1949, we’re back to the United States—I mean, Europe is doing American bidding and whatnot. But sanctions, I think—I think trade forces probably are the most—the most forceful measure to deal with Putin.

AARON MATÉ: It was only a few weeks ago that we had this agreement in Geneva between the U.S., EU, Russia, Ukraine. All sides were supposed to drop support for the armed groups. Has anybody tried to follow through on what they agreed to in Geneva?

NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: It doesn’t seem that on both sides, because there’s still the right sector that is still very forceful, or at least so it is presented by the Russian. They do seem to occupy buildings. I actually read the recent report that in Lviv there are even coffee shops open, a bar, with the right sector and sort of some fascist rhetoric involved. And the thing about the Russians, they use this as such a great tool of propaganda.

I actually would like to add to why I think East Ukraine is different from the Crimea story, because in Crimea there really was a lot of support. With Russian guns or not, there was a lot of support for becoming Russian. In eastern Ukraine, I think the Russians are so meddling and so forceful precisely because there are probably 20—and maybe 30, but I wouldn’t even go that far—of the population that may want to become part of Russia. So they have to—they have to push hard. And then, of course, in East Donetsk, they can continue to—Russians continue to be involved and push very hard, precisely because they, first of all, need the referendum for the 11th to make sure that there are many more people than there really they are—many poor people supposedly support the secession—and also to meddle before the elections on the 25th of May.

AMY GOODMAN: Jack Matlock, you’re the last U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, now at Princeton University. How can—

JACK MATLOCK: Not quite.

AMY GOODMAN: To the Soviet Union?

JACK MATLOCK: I’m sorry? No, Robert Strauss was the last ambassador to the Soviet Union.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, nearing the end there. How do you think the U.S. could most—

JACK MATLOCK: Yes, very close to the end.

AMY GOODMAN: How could the U.S. most effectively deal with President Putin?

JACK MATLOCK: I think that we—if we’re going to be effective, we need to take as much as we can out of the public arena and deal privately with these issues. When it has become sort of a contest between our presidents—you know, who can do what to the other—it becomes, I think, very emotional, and it tends to push things, I think, in the wrong direction. So I would hope that having done some of the sanctions that we promised, when we promised them, we have to do them. We should try, to the maximum, to go private. And in particular, I think where we can be most helpful is convincing the authorities in Kiev to come to any reasonable terms that the Russians are asking. Publicly, at least, they’re asking for a federal constitution, they’re asking for equal treatment of the Russian and Ukrainian languages, and they’re asking for a pledge of neutrality. I think all of those three demands, on the surface, are reasonable. And it seems to me that working quietly with the Ukrainians in Kiev and the Europeans is going to be more helpful than the sanctions.

AARON MATÉ: And, Ambassador, what could the Obama administration do differently than this administration and previous administrations have done in the past towards Russia?

JACK MATLOCK: I didn’t understand the question.

AARON MATÉ: What could the U.S. do differently in its approach to Russia than it has done in the past? You’ve been critical of how the U.S. has treated Putin.

JACK MATLOCK: Oh, well, the most fundamental issue here was the threat of NATO membership eventually for Ukraine. This is something that no Russian government, no matter how democratic, is going to accept. And they will use any methods at their disposal to make sure it doesn’t happen. And that’s what we see happening now. And if this issue had never been raised, I think it would have been much easier to work out the economic issues, which are the most important ones.

But also something to remember is, throughout the 22-plus years of Ukraine’s independence, the Ukrainians have not been able to create an effective government of the entire country. They have not been able to create a sense of nationality. It is, in many respects, a failed state. And all of the parties from outside, beginning with Russia, but also including the Europeans and the United States, I think, have followed policies that have not been helpful.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go back right now to Chris Miller in Kiev. What is the sense of what will be happening there now and the sense of the sanctions? The European Union clearly doesn’t want to go after the gas because they’re so—they are so reliant on it, so the U.S. is targeting oil. Is there a sense that a civil war could break out?

CHRISTOPHER MILLER: There’s not so much a sense of civil war, but rather a partisan war. There are partisan forces and militia groups that are preparing themselves for such a thing. They’re training out in places outside of Kiev. They’re training in eastern Ukraine.

You know, and what I wanted to say—actually, it was said earlier—in terms of what’s different between Crimea and the east—I think this goes with your question—is, there isn’t much support for what is happening in eastern Ukraine out in eastern Ukraine. It’s a very small minority that is, you know, seizing these buildings, holding the cities captive. You know, I think more than 75 percent of the population in the region is not in support of what is taking place there. You know, there is a significant percentage of the population that is for some independence from the central government in Kiev, but not necessarily separating from Ukraine altogether and joining Russia, or becoming altogether independent.

But this is certainly a situation that is escalating. It’s a very fluid situation. And, you know, our sources in the security services and Defense Ministry are telling us that it could get worse over the course of the May holidays in the next couple of weeks.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Ambassador Jack Matlock, President Obama’s response in the Philippines to the Fox question about his foreign policy being in disarray, and he responds by talking about why the U.S. should not be involved in a war again. You have been a critic of the U.S. getting involved militarily in Ukraine. What did you think of President Obama’s response?

JACK MATLOCK: I thought his response was excellent. And I think his general effort to keep us out of conflict and remove us from those are—I applaud. What I have criticized regarding dealing with Ukraine has been a pattern of activity, starting with the way NATO was expanded without an apparent stop at some point, and also the attempt in Kiev to get involved in local politics. I think that was unwise, and I think that has given a sort of an East-West competitive cast to what is an internal, basically, Ukrainian matter. So that, I’ve criticized. I very much applaud President Obama’s attempt to very much limit our use of force in international affairs. I think that is the way to go. And I think he expressed it very, very well in his Manila remarks.

AMY GOODMAN: As we wrap up, Nina Khrushcheva, you’re the great-granddaughter, adopted granddaughter of the late Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev. How does this period in Russian history compare to what has taken place in the past?

NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: Well, I mean, it has been compared with the Cuban missile crisis numerous times. And to a degree, it is a fair comparison, I think, because it was—we’re very close to a brink of absolute disaster. And I do think that President Putin, President Obama, the new Kiev government, they really need to—and I completely agree with Ambassador Matlock, whose—I have to proudly say, I was research assistant at one point at Princeton—that it has really—I mean, all cards are on the table. Now it has to be done quietly because, as I’ve been writing and I just wrote yesterday in a Reuters piece, is that the more we talk about—the more America scolds Putin, the more it becomes an ideological battle. And once you start an ideological battle, it’s actually very difficult to get away from the real crisis, from the boots on the ground, from affecting people who live day-to-day life and become involved in this kind of ideology while they really need to be going on about their life business.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you all for being with us. Nina Khrushcheva is a professor of international affairs at New School here in New York. Her forthcoming book, coming out very soon, The Lost Khrushchev: Journey into the Gulag of the Russian Mind. We want to thank Ambassador Jack Matlock, who is a former U.S. ambassador to Moscow, and Christopher Miller, who is with the Kyiv Post, speaking to us from Kiev.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, the scandal that is rocking the sports world. Stay with us.

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