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What’s driving Russia to raise the stakes in Ukraine?

UKRAINE-RUSSIA-CRISIS-POLITICS

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HARI SREENIVASAN: For more on what’s happening on the ground in Ukraine, I’m joined by Andrew Kramer of The New York Times.  He joins us from Donetsk.

So, Andrew, you were visiting a town where the Russian troops were streaming in.  Describe that scene to us.

ANDREW KRAMER, The New York Times: Yes, this was in the town of Novoazovsk on the Azov Sea.  And we were standing on the outside of the town speaking with Ukrainian soldiers who were retreating.

These soldiers were convinced they were fighting the Russians.  At least many of them were.  We didn’t see the troops coming in, but they were said to have come across the border from Russia into Ukraine.  It was a very chaotic scene.  And, in fact, a day later, that town was seized by the pro-Russian forces.

HARI SREENIVASAN: You also spoke of locals in that area.  What did they think about what’s happening?

ANDREW KRAMER: Well, people here who support the Russian cause are obviously cheered by this development.  The rebel organization had been on its last legs militarily in recent weeks.

The Ukrainian army was closing in on towns of Donetsk and Luhansk.  And now there’s been a reversal of fortunes, a turning of the tide here.  The separatists and, according to Ukrainian government, with the support of Russia, has moved across the Russian border and has now opened a new front in the south along the seashore with the cities of Novoazovsk and Mariupol as the objectives.

Now, a rebel commander I spoke with said the intention is to form a defensive triangle out of these two cities and Donetsk and hopefully force the Ukrainian government into settlement talks on more favorable terms.

HARI SREENIVASAN: What’s the impact on the cities that you’re — you’re in Donetsk now.  But what’s the impact there on what’s happening in these other towns?

ANDREW KRAMER: For now, in Donetsk, little has changed.  We had an artillery barrage come into town today that killed two people, hitting residential areas.  The Ukrainian government is keeping up its pressure on Donetsk.

The assumption is that forces will be diverted from here to the south to address this new risk, this new push by the pro-Russians and possibly with support of Russian supporters coming in across the border.  That’s the hope at least of the separatists living in this town.  It’s a setback for the Ukrainians who are hoping to end this war quickly and on their terms.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Can you feel a level of tension increasing or decreasing from the events in the past week?

ANDREW KRAMER: The tension is certainly increasing, particularly in the towns and villages affected.

We drove along a 75-mile stretch of highway from here in Donetsk to the area where the battle is taking place and it was almost wholly deserted.  You would see only a few cars carrying refugees, burned-out military vehicles, and people who were very concerned, obviously, about this new development and the violence which is coming to their communities.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Is there a cognition of what’s happening and how the rest of the world is paying attention?  Do the people in Ukraine, the ones that you speak with, care about what’s happening at NATO or whether this is called an invasion or an incursion?

ANDREW KRAMER: People in the areas that have been shelled are mostly concerned about everyday concerns, like fetching water and food and staying out of the way of danger.

There is certainly, among the rebels, a larger understanding of the context of this war and this conflict.  Ukraine has now said — the president of Ukraine has said today that Russia invaded.  NATO was more cautious, saying that Russia had carried out an incursion into Ukraine.  In any case, what’s clearly happening here is a cross-border military action in Europe, and the consequences are very unpredictable.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Andrew Kramer of The New York Times joining us from Donetsk, thanks so much.

ANDREW KRAMER: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: Jeffrey Brown picks up the story from there.

JEFFREY BROWN: And to go deeper into these developments, I’m joint by Andrew Weiss, a former director of Russian, Ukrainian and Eurasian affairs at the White House National Security Council.  He’s now with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.  Andrei Tsygankov, a political science and international relations professor at San Francisco State University.

Andrew Weiss first, how do you describe what’s going on and who are these Russian soldiers?  What role are they playing?

ANDREW WEISS, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: I think, throughout the crisis, we have seen the Russians try to disguise their ultimate moments.

So we may have a new front on the southern — southeastern — southeastern border between Russia and Ukraine.  We also might have a Russian attempt to create a land bridge between the Russian border and Crimea, which would allow them to supply Crimea more effectively in the future.

JEFFREY BROWN: Would you use the word invasion, incursion?  What word would you use at this point?

ANDREW WEISS: Well, there’s this interesting semantic game being played in Washington today, where U.S. officials are trying very hard not to use the word invasion, so you have the State Department spokesman, Jen Psaki, saying it’s an incursion.

What I think the reason for that is, is that U.S. officials, as President Obama said today, is they’re trying to avoid any perception that there’s a U.S. military response in the offing.  So they seem to be somewhat downplaying what’s happened.

But, at the same time, I think privately people are very worried that what we’re seeing is a dramatic escalation.

JEFFREY BROWN: Andrei Tsygankov, what do you call it?  How much of an escalation do you see?

ANDREI TSYGANKOV, San Francisco State University: I would call it an escalation, and, as Andrew Weiss just described, the second front opening.

And certainly this is — this is something that’s been going on for quite some time.  We have seen the Russians’ assistance before.  And this is also not major news.  What’s actually new is that the Ukrainian side is beginning to lose on the military front and that in, Minsk, Petro Poroshenko, Ukrainian president, has not gotten what he expected to get, and that Germany is beginning to pressure Kiev for peaceful solutions.

So, now what is happening, in addition to Russia’s escalation, is that Ukraine, Kiev is launching a P.R. offense against Russia.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, you’re seeing this as coming from weakness by the Ukrainians, as opposed to more aggression by the Russians?

ANDREI TSYGANKOV: I see both.  I see both, but Russia’s intervention is not something that has happened just now.  Russia has been assisting the rebels, eastern rebels before.

As we know, Russian volunteers fought there.  We know that previous commanders of Donetsk and Luhansk, and primarily Donetsk, were Russian citizens.  So Russia certainly was involved.  And it makes sense for Russia, if it sees itself as a great power that needs to protect its interests in Ukraine, to be involved, so it has been — it has been taking place for quite some time.  This is just a new stage.

JEFFREY BROWN: And…

ANDREI TSYGANKOV: But what we also see is again that Ukraine is trying to launch a P.R. offensive against Russia.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Andrew Weiss, Ukraine seemed to have been doing — had — stronger militarily in many ways, which would counteract what he was just saying.

ANDREW WEISS: I think people’s expectation in recent weeks was that the Ukrainians were a roll and that it looked like the separatists were basically cornered in two strongholds, Donetsk and Luhansk.

And the question, what would Putin do?  Was Putin cornered?  And there’s this great vignette in Putin’s autobiography where he talks about chasing rats in the dilapidated building where he grew up in, and one day he cornered a rat and discovered that the rat was going to attack him.

I think what we have seen here is an example of how Putin wasn’t really cornered.  Putin has basically at various turns in the crisis, when it looked like Russia’s status on the ropes, has chosen to escalate and he’s done that once again.

JEFFREY BROWN: So you’re seeing this quite differently from what — the description we just heard?  This is Russia more on the defensive and reacting?

ANDREW WEISS: Well, it’s been restrained.

I don’t think Putin’s first choice is to mount a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.  But what we have seen is that they’re not willing to lose and that when it looks like the Ukrainians are poised to do too much too quickly, the Russians raise the stakes and that that’s where we are today.

JEFFREY BROWN: Andrei Tsygankov, what’s your response?  What — well, go ahead.

ANDREI TSYGANKOV: I don’t disagree.  I don’t disagree.  I think this is what is happening.

I think Russia is raising the stakes.  But remember that Russia is raising the stakes in response to Ukrainians raising the stakes.  Ukrainians have begun this anti-terrorist operations, what they called anti-terrorist operation, which is in effect is search for a military solution, and military solution to the conflict.

And Russians certainly will see this as a need to restore balance of power.  For them, this is a necessity to negotiate better political conditions for their interests and values.  They have major interests, such as Ukraine not to be a member of NATO, such as Ukraine not to join the European Union, but ultimately to remain relationships with Eurasian Union.

They have interests to protect Russian language speakers there, those who gravitates toward Russia.  And this is something that they will be willing to defend, if necessary by military means.

JEFFREY BROWN: Just before — Andrew Weiss, just before we started, you heard word of a new pronouncement or a news announcement, was it, from Putin?

ANDREW WEISS: So, what seems to be happening ,as Andrew Kramer from The New York Times talked about, is that this Russian incursion in Southeastern Ukraine has really caused disruption in the Ukrainian ranks and soldiers are basically evacuating in a pretty sort of pell-mell kind of environment.

The Russian president, Putin, tonight has issued a statement at an unusual hour, 1:00 a.m. Moscow time, calling on the rebels not to kill the Ukrainian soldiers who are now encircled.  And he is saying, open a humanitarian corridor.  These people are being forced to fight.  Let them go home to their families.

It’s not clear what’s going on, on the ground, whether there is this significant risk that Ukrainian soldiers are going to be sort of ground up by the new Russian forces that have been introduced.  But it’s striking to me that Putin is reduced to sending out his commands via press release, and it just suggests to me that the situation is very messy and very uncontrolled.

JEFFREY BROWN: Andrei Tsygankov, you can comment on that, but I also want to know your sense of whether the Russians and Mr. Putin are feeling any impact of the American sanctions so far, whether the pressure from the West is having any impact?

ANDREI TSYGANKOV: Let me just make one observation about the situation in Ukraine.

Certainly, Russians — Russians were assisting the rebels, and the rebels were losing until recently.  But, a week ago, about a week ago, they began a counteroffensive.  And that’s what’s happening today.  Thousands of Ukrainian troops are now encircled.  That’s not sufficiently reported in Western media, but it is something that certainly helps Putin to negotiate better conditions.

This is one of the reasons why he felt so confident in Minsk.  This is one of the reasons why he didn’t feel that he would need to negotiate with Poroshenko over political conditions, because Poroshenko already knows all these conditions, and the ball in many ways is in his court.

Russia can wait until the fall, until possibly winter, when it will be able also to use energy weapons.  And in the meantime, the solution is only a political one.  This is something that now all sides recognize.  Russia recognizes this.  The European Union, Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, recognizes this.  Barack Obama now recognizes this.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

ANDREI TSYGANKOV: So it’s now essential to move in this direction.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Andrei Tsygankov and Andrew Weiss, thank you both very much.

ANDREW WEISS: Thank you.

ANDREI TSYGANKOV: Thank you.

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Ukraine accuses Russian forces of invasion

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GWEN IFILL: The crisis in Ukraine intensified today as the government in Kiev accused Russia of an outright invasion.

Hari Sreenivasan reports.

ARSENIY YATSENYUK, Prime Minister, Ukraine: We can confirm that Russian military boots are on Ukrainian ground.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The cries of invasion came from Ukraine’s prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, and President Petro Poroshenko, who announced Russian forces have entered Ukraine.

PRESIDENT PETRO POROSHENKO, Ukrainian (through interpretor): Amateur mercenaries, along with employed Russian servicemen, are trying to organize a counteroffensive against positions of our armed forces.  Without any doubts, the situation is extraordinarily difficult, but it is controllable.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The Ukrainians charged, Russian soldiers and armor are helping rebels open a new front in the southeast.  Kiev confirmed the rebels have captured the town on Novoazovsk on the Azov Sea, leaving the port city of Mariupol suddenly vulnerable to attack.

Ukraine’s government said images from Novoazovsk showed a Russian tank on the streets.  And NATO released its own satellite images showing Russian self-propelled artillery units on Ukrainian roads.  The alliance said well over 1,000 Russian troops have crossed the border and warned of more to come.

BRIG. GEN. NICO TAK, NATO:  These latest images provides concrete examples of Russian activity inside Ukraine, but they are only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the overall scope of Russian troop and weapons movements.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Earlier this week, Ukraine had released a video showing what it said were Russian servicemen captured on its territory.  And, today, the rebel prime minister acknowledged several thousand Russians are fighting with the rebels on their own time.

ALEKSANDR ZAKHARCHENKO, Prime Minister, Donetsk People’s Republic (through interpretor): Among volunteers from Russia, there have always been many retired military servicemen.  There are also currently serving soldiers among us who preferred to spend their vacations not on sea beaches, but among us, among brothers fighting for their freedom.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The spike in tensions prompted angry words at the U.N. Security Council.

U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power blasted previous Russian denials of complicity.

SAMANTHA POWER, U.S. Ambassador to the UN: At every step, Russia has come before this council to say everything except the truth.  It has manipulated, it has obfuscated, it has outright lied.  So we have learned to measure Russia by its actions and not by its words.

HARI SREENIVASAN: In turn, Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin dismissed the accusations, without directly denying anything.

VITALY CHURKIN, UN Ambassador, Russia (through interpretor): Everyone knows that there are Russian volunteers in eastern parts of Ukraine.  No one is hiding that.  We’d like to see similar transparency shown by other countries.  I would suggest that we send a message to Washington.  Stop interfering in the internal affairs of sovereign states.  Stop trying to undermine a regime that you don’t like.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Later, President Obama discouraged talk of a U.S. military option.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We are not taking military action to solve the Ukrainian problem.  What we’re doing is to mobilize the international community to apply pressure on Russia.  But I think it is very important to recognize that a military solution to this problem is not going to be forthcoming.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The president argued that pressure from existing and possibly new sanctions will take an increasing toll on Russia, even if it’s not apparent now.

For more on what’s happening on the ground in Ukraine, I’m joined by Andrew Kramer of The New York Times.  He joins us from Donetsk.

So, Andrew, you were visiting a town where the Russian troops were streaming in.  Describe that scene to us.

ANDREW KRAMER, The New York Times: Yes, this was in the town of Novoazovsk on the Azov Sea.  And we were standing on the outside of the town speaking with Ukrainian soldiers who were retreating.

These soldiers were convinced they were fighting the Russians.  At least many of them were.  We didn’t see the troops coming in, but they were said to have come across the border from Russia into Ukraine.  It was a very chaotic scene.  And, in fact, a day later, that town was seized by the pro-Russian forces.

HARI SREENIVASAN: You also spoke of locals in that area.  What did they think about what’s happening?

ANDREW KRAMER: Well, people here who support the Russian cause are obviously cheered by this development.  The rebel organization had been on its last legs militarily in recent weeks.

The Ukrainian army was closing in on towns of Donetsk and Luhansk.  And now there’s been a reversal of fortunes, a turning of the tide here.  The separatists and, according to Ukrainian government, with the support of Russia, has moved across the Russian border and has now opened a new front in the south along the seashore with the cities of Novoazovsk and Mariupol as the objectives.

Now, a rebel commander I spoke with said the intention is to form a defensive triangle out of these two cities and Donetsk and hopefully force the Ukrainian government into settlement talks on more favorable terms.

HARI SREENIVASAN: What’s the impact on the cities that you’re — you’re in Donetsk now.  But what’s the impact there on what’s happening in these other towns?

ANDREW KRAMER: For now, in Donetsk, little has changed.  We had an artillery barrage come into town today that killed two people, hitting residential areas.  The Ukrainian government is keeping up its pressure on Donetsk.

The assumption is that forces will be diverted from here to the south to address this new risk, this new push by the pro-Russians and possibly with support of Russian supporters coming in across the border.  That’s the hope at least of the separatists living in this town.  It’s a setback for the Ukrainians who are hoping to end this war quickly and on their terms.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Can you feel a level of tension increasing or decreasing from the events in the past week?

ANDREW KRAMER: The tension is certainly increasing, particularly in the towns and villages affected.

We drove along a 75-mile stretch of highway from here in Donetsk to the area where the battle is taking place and it was almost wholly deserted.  You would see only a few cars carrying refugees, burned-out military vehicles, and people who were very concerned, obviously, about this new development and the violence which is coming to their communities.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Is there a cognition of what’s happening and how the rest of the world is paying attention?  Do the people in Ukraine, the ones that you speak with, care about what’s happening at NATO or whether this is called an invasion or an incursion?

ANDREW KRAMER: People in the areas that have been shelled are mostly concerned about everyday concerns, like fetching water and food and staying out of the way of danger.

There is certainly, among the rebels, a larger understanding of the context of this war and this conflict.  Ukraine has now said — the president of Ukraine has said today that Russia invaded.  NATO was more cautious, saying that Russia had carried out an incursion into Ukraine.  In any case, what’s clearly happening here is a cross-border military action in Europe, and the consequences are very unpredictable.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Andrew Kramer of The New York Times joining us from Donetsk, thanks so much.

ANDREW KRAMER: Thank you.

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News Wrap: Islamic State executes captured Syrian fighters

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GWEN IFILL: President Obama moved today to tamp down talk of imminent military action against Islamic State fighters in Syria.

At the White House, he said his priority is to roll back the militants’ gain in Iraq, where U.S. airstrikes are already under way.  He said calls to expand the campaign into Syria amount to — quote — “putting the cart before the horse.”

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  We don’t have a strategy yet.  I think what I have seen in some of the news reports suggests that folks are getting a little further ahead of where we’re at than we currently are.

But there’s no point in me asking for action on the part of Congress before I know exactly what it is that is going to be required for us to get the job done.

GWEN IFILL: Separately, there was word that Islamic State fighters executed more than 150 soldiers Syrian captured in recent fighting.  The troops were taken prisoner after militants seized a key air base in northeastern Syria.  A video posted on YouTube showed a long line of bodies lying face down in the sand.

Gunmen on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights detained 43 U.N. peacekeepers from Fiji today.  U.N. officials say it happened during fighting between an unidentified armed group and Syrian troops.  Another 81 peacekeepers from the Philippines were trapped.  Afterward, U.N. troops kept a close watch on the Syrian side of the Heights.  Their mission is to monitor a zone of separation between Syrian and Israeli forces.

J.P. Morgan Chase has confirmed it’s investigating a possible cyber-attack, but it says the scope is unclear.  Bloomberg News reported it’s part of a series of coordinated and sophisticated attacks by Russian hackers.  And The New York Times reported at least four other banks were also targeted in the last month.  The stolen data includes checking and savings account information.

A family feud over control of a supermarket chain in New England is finally over.  The disagreement, which began in June, spawned worker and customer boycotts of Market Basket that attracted national attention.  Now Arthur T. Demoulas will buy the majority stake in the chain from his cousin for $1.5 billion.  He celebrated with employees today in Tewksbury, Massachusetts.  The battle for control ultimately cost the grocery chain millions of dollars in lost revenue.

On Wall Street today, the Dow Jones industrial average lost 42 points to close at 17,079.  The Nasdaq slipped nearly 12 points to close at 4,557.  And the S&P 500 dropped three points to 1,996.

The National Football League is getting tougher on domestic violence.  Commissioner Roger Goodell announced today players will be suspended for six games for a first offense.  They will be banned outright if it happens a second time.  Goodell was criticized when he suspended the Baltimore Ravens’ Ray Rice for just two weeks for allegedly hitting his fiancee.

Today, Goodell acknowledged he — quote — “didn’t get it right.”

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Obama condemns Russia for Ukraine violence; rules out U.S. military involvement

President Barack Obama spoke Thursday on efforts in the Middle East, announcing Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to the region to build a coalition against Islamic militants.

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama suggested Thursday that the U.S. might impose new economic sanctions on Russia, blaming it squarely for the warfare in eastern Ukraine. But he ruled out any military options and proposed no shift in an American-led strategy that has yet to convince Moscow to halt operations against its far weaker neighbor.

Briefing reporters at the White House, Obama said he spoke by telephone with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, Europe’s largest economy and a country that has led diplomatic efforts to end the fighting between Ukraine and Russian-backed rebels. They spoke after two columns of Russian tanks and military vehicles entered the country’s southeast and fired Grad missiles at a border post and 1,000 Russian troops poured into the country, according to NATO and Ukrainian officials.

“We agree, if there was ever any doubt, that Russia is responsible for the violence in eastern Ukraine. The violence is encouraged by Russia. The separatists are trained by Russia, they are armed by Russia, they are funded by Russia,” Obama said. “Russia has deliberately and repeatedly violated the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, and the new images of Russian forces inside Ukraine make that plain for the world to see.”

Obama was cautious in foreshadowing a possible American response, expressly ruling out any U.S. military involvement. He said Russia’s recent activity in Ukraine would incur “more costs and consequences,” though these seemed to be limited to economic pressure that will be discussed when Obama meets with European leaders at a NATO summit in Wales next week. He also offered “unwavering commitment” to Ukraine and announced that its Western-looking president, Petro Poroshenko, would visit the White House next month.

The Russian offensive comes after months of fighting in eastern Ukraine, which U.S. and other Western countries say Moscow has orchestrated. After Ukraine’s pro-Russian leader fled the country earlier this year and a new government turned away from Moscow toward its European neighbors, Russia seized and annexed the Crimean Peninsula. Since then, it has continued to provide support for armed pro-Russian groups fighting the Ukrainian government despite rising U.S. and European sanctions against Russian government officials, banks and energy companies.

Obama said the sanctions have been “effective,” prompting capital to flee Russia and its economy to decline, but they’ve done little to convince Putin to end Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, a former Soviet republic. The president said Russia has been involved in all separatist activity and that the latest its latest escalation appeared to be a response to progress by Ukraine’s government against the main rebel-held areas of Donetsk and Luhansk.

“This is not a homegrown, indigenous uprising in eastern Ukraine,” Obama said. Putin, he added, has “repeatedly passed by potential off-ramps to resolve this diplomatically” and “we have not seen any meaningful action on the part of Russia to actually try to resolve this in diplomatic fashion.”

Russia continued Thursday to say there is no proof its troops are operating in Ukraine, without delivering firm denials, even as its forces and separatist rebels appeared to take control of the strategic town of Novoazovsk, breaking open a third front in the war. The new southeastern front raises fears Moscow is creating a land link between Crimea and Russia. Novoazovsk lies on the road between the territories.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Russia was engaged in a “pattern of escalating aggression.” But she, too, was vague about any immediate steps the United States might take even to help Ukraine, saying Washington’s focus was on “nonlethal” assistance and not any defensive or offensive military equipment.

Obama still held out hope for Russia to change course.

“What we’re doing is to mobilize the international community to apply pressure on Russia,” he said. “But I think it is very important to recognize that a military solution to this problem is not going to be forthcoming.” Russia’s actions have only hurt itself, he said, leaving it more isolated than at any point since the end of the Cold War — something he hoped would become increasingly apparent to its leaders.

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