Cross-border tensions over the separatist rebellion in eastern Ukraine have reached a boiling point as violent attacks and evidence of expanding Russian intervention have claimed lives — and international goodwill — in recent weeks. With both sides engaged in a shadowy war of threats and attacks, reports from the ground show new evidence of Russian troops and equipment entering Ukrainian territory. With sanctions already on the books against Russia, the international community meets today in Brussels to contemplate its next move. Kojo explores the increasingly dangerous standoff between Russia and Ukraine.


  • Stephen Sestanovich Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations; Professor of International Diplomacy, Columbia University; Author, "Maximalist: America in the World from Truman to Obama"
  • Michael Birnbaum Moscow Bureau Chief, The Washington Post


  • 13:06:40

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, producing more nutritional foods as a way to reduce hunger and malnutrition and the role GMO's may or may not pay in that process. But first, for a while, it seemed like the crisis between Ukraine and Russia was dissipating, following Russia's sudden annexation of Crimea, this spring.

  • 13:07:14

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIUkraine elected a tough new president, leaders in Moscow and Kiev made conciliatory statements and Russia withdrew thousands of troops it had amassed on the border. But in recent days, violence on both sides of the boarder has re-ignited tensions and again put the region in danger of direct conflict, with reports pouring in of new troops on the boarder and Russian tanks and equipment flowing into Ukraine, the International Community is scrambling to understand and to stop a shadowy conflict of a tax and sabotage that's threatening stability in Europe.

  • 13:07:46

    MR. KOJO NNAMDISo what's the latest in this standoff and what are the best options in a situation mired and dangerous diplomatic finger-pointing? Joining us, in studio, to have that conversation is Stephen Sestanovich, he is senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a professor of international diplomacy at Columbia University, author of "Maximalist: America in the World from Truman to Obama." Stephen Sestanovich, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:08:11


  • 13:08:12

    NNAMDIAnd joining us, by phone, from Moscow is Michael Birnbaum. He is the Moscow Bureau Chief for the Washington Post. Michael Birnbaum, thank you for joining us. I...

  • 13:08:25

    MR. MICHAEL BIRNBAUMThanks so much for having me.

  • 13:08:26

    NNAMDIThere is, as you will notice, a slight delay in Michael's phone because he is in Moscow. We'll work with that. Michael, you've just returned from a reporting trip to the Eastern part of Ukraine, where we've been hearing reports of sporadic violence, including the destruction of an apartment building, this week, that killed, at least, 11 people. From where we sit, what's happening in Ukraine seems pretty murky, is it any clearer for Ukrainians? What's the mood like on the streets in the areas where you are or were?

  • 13:08:56

    BIRNBAUMWhat is clear is that there is a tremendous amount of violence happening on both sides, is that the situation is very bad for civilians, they're in the crossfire. And that both sides, both the rebels and the government, in Ukraine, are very happy to use as much as they can of what's going on in an information war. Both sides make claims that are clearly not substantiated by facts on the ground. Both sides are seeking to present, you know, each, each as taking major territory, major advances, saying that the other side's committing civilian atrocities.

  • 13:09:52

    BIRNBAUMOn the ground, it's a lot murkier. And what, what is clear, again, is that a lot of ordinary people just want the violence to stop and are very angry with both sides.

  • 13:10:05

    NNAMDIMichael, this crisis escalated over the weekend when Russia accused Ukraine of lobbing a shell over the border and killing a Russian civilian. Ukraine denied the incident, claiming it was the work of provocateurs. What's been happening along the border regions since this attack? Could this be the straw that breaks the camel's back?

  • 13:10:28

    BIRNBAUMWell, it's hard to know, incredibly hard to predict what Russia is going to do. But that boarder incident immediately set off a tremendous amount of anger and threats of retaliation inside Russia. There was a senior legislator who said that what Russia needed to do right now is engage in pinpoint air strikes against targets on Ukrainian soil. He said that, they needed to take the Israeli example. And the Russian foreign ministry said that there would be irreversible consequences with that rectifying exactly what that meant.

  • 13:11:13

    BIRNBAUMNow the Kremlin spokesman has said that, there is no chance of pinpoint strikes, that they're not about to invade, that this is really going too far. But what a lot of reports are saying, what the Ukrainian government is saying, what witnesses are saying on the ground, and what Western governments are saying, based on their intelligence, is that there does seem to be increase movement of heavy equipment over the Russian border into Ukraine. It's difficult to ascertain who exactly is sending in that equipment, who's piloting the equipment.

  • 13:11:53

    BIRNBAUMIs it rebels? Is it someone else? But there does seem to be a fair amount of movement of heavy equipment toward, you know, Eastward--Westward over the boarder toward the heavy fighting in Luhansk and Donetsk, the two main city centers that are in the conflict right now.

  • 13:12:12

    NNAMDISteve Sestanovich, after Petro Poroshenko won the Ukrainian Presidential election in May and the EU imposed sanctions, Vladimir Putin withdrew almost all of the troops he'd built up along the Ukraine boarder. What are we supposed to be reading into these renewed tensions now, especially, listening to what Michael is reporting, that is happening here. Was Putin biding his time?

  • 13:12:34

    SESTANOVICHWell, I think it's important to see that in a part from any one or two days events, the Russian appetite for involvement in Ukraine has actually diminished. Public support is way down for the idea of military action. Putin, himself, seems to recognize that the extent of support for the separatists, in this provinces in Eastern Ukraine, is less then he imagined. And -- so there has been a, kind of, damping down of the propaganda, of the just general enthusiasm.

  • 13:13:11

    SESTANOVICHBut I don't think Russia has made the big choice that it's going to have to make, which is whether to recognize that this policy hasn't gone as well as it hoped and disengage or double down with more involvement and support. And so, day by day, we see some of those fluctuations, until you get that decision, made on the Russian part, a lot of what happens is either random violence and events or maneuvering for propaganda advantage, just as Michael says.

  • 13:13:39

    NNAMDIAllow me to follow up on that. Members of the European Union are meeting in Brussels today, to discuss increased sanctions against Russia, including cutting off large scale financing for Russia's public sector projects. How effective could these new cuts be in persuading Moscow to stand down in Ukraine?

  • 13:13:55

    SESTANOVICHWell, I think they're crucial because they convey, to the Russians, that there isn't a complete unraveling of Western unity and focus on this issue, even though these sanctions are probably not gonna be terribly biding or significant. They convey to the Russians, that this problem has not gone away and until they disengage from Ukraine, cut off the flow of aides to the separatists, that there's just going to be an insoluble problem in Russia's relations with Europe and with the United States.

  • 13:14:28

    NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, we're discussing the crisis in Ukraine. Later in the broadcast, we'll be talking about nutritional foods as a way to reduce hunger and malnutrition in the role of GMO's and that. But right now, we're talking with Stephen Sestanovich. He is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a professor of international diplomacy at Columbia University and author of "Maximalist: America in the World from Truman to Obama." From 1997 to 2001, Steve serves as U.S. ambassador at large for the former Soviet -- to the former Soviet Union.

  • 13:15:00

    NNAMDIJoining us by phone, from Moscow, is Michael Birnbaum. He is Moscow bureau chief for the Washington Post. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. You can send email to Michael Birnbaum, there seems to be growing international consensus that Russia has not met its obligations to end violence in the region. What kind of signal does this show of unity send to Vladimir Putin, right now?

  • 13:15:32

    BIRNBAUMWell, I think that Vladimir Putin is, you know, willing to accept some amount of payback and pushback from the West. He -- his popularity ratings are very high, they keep going higher. The latest is 86 percent approval rating. They've just shot up, ever since Crimea, the annexation of Crimea in March. And a lot of Russians, Russian public opinion, is supporting him and even pushing him forward to take a stronger stand in Ukraine.

  • 13:16:14

    BIRNBAUMThere does seem to be some discussion, two camps within the Kremlin. One that is concerned about the economic impact that the sanctions are having, that a Western pullout of investment is having on Russia and the economic costs of supporting the Crimean Peninsula. But there's also a camp and I've spoken to a number of senior Russian officials who want Putin to go further. To say that he hasn't gone far enough to support rebels in the East.

  • 13:16:48

    BIRNBAUMYou see the rebels, in recent -- last week or so, saying, Russia has not given us the help that we would have liked. And there's a substantial portion of the Russian population that wants Russia to go further to support Russian speakers and the rebels in the East. And so, again, of course, the Western sanctions and condemnation of Putin, does have an impact on some portions of people in power, in Russia.

  • 13:17:19

    BIRNBAUMBut there is another very powerful group and public opinion that's very strong, motivated by the public television, very strong public television campaign against the government in Kiev, but wants Putin to keep doing what he's been perhaps...

  • 13:17:38

    NNAMDISame question...

  • 13:17:39

    BIRNBAUM...I'm not certain that we would be a major dialing back.

  • 13:17:43

    NNAMDISame question to you, Stephen Sestanovich.

  • 13:17:44

    SESTANOVICHWell, I think, Putin has created a situation for himself, in which it's hard for him to maneuver. He has stimulated a, kind of, nationalist hysteria in Russia. And that means, exactly as Michael says, that there are demands always to go further. But, I think, the center of gravity in this government now, is a little bit more cautious then a couple of months ago because they're more aware of the costs of this kind of involvement. They see that it's gonna be a big, messy slog in Ukraine, if they try to push it through, a real support for the separatists.

  • 13:18:21

    SESTANOVICHAnd so, Putin's predicament right now, is how to disengage without having it be too embarrassing. From that point of view, his high poll numbers are probably an asset. He can pull back without sacrificing the base of his support. But he is under pressure, there's no doubt about it. They -- the leader -- one of the leaders of the separatists, said last week, his language a little more pungent then Michael said, Putin has betrayed us.

  • 13:18:48

    NNAMDIWhat about the U.S.'s involvement in ending this crisis, Steve? So far, U.S. threats of tough action haven't amounted to much. What should the U.S. be doing, policy-wise?

  • 13:18:57

    SESTANOVICHWell, the U.S. position right now, is to push the Europeans to keep the sanctions threat credible. And that is an important part of maintaining pressure on the Russians. The diplomatic angle is being handled mostly by the Europeans. There are often, daily, calls between the French president, the German chancellor, the Ukrainian president, Putin, trying to figure out some kind of seize-fire formula.

  • 13:19:28

    SESTANOVICHSo far, the rebels have not been terribly interested in it. They are eager to have a seize-fire that gets the Ukrainian government off their back. But they're not interested in one that obliges them to put down their arms. So American policy has been trying to push others forward. There's another line of policy which has been a little less in the headlines but still very important, going forward. And that is helping Ukraine to succeed. That's gonna mean support for a variety of problems that Ukraine faces, in particular, its economic difficulties because it's been getting support from the IMF, but it is -- its economic crisis has deepening.

  • 13:20:09

    NNAMDIWhat about U.S. military assistance to Ukrainian forces. Is that an advisable option? Well, I think certain kinds of training and equipment support are welcome. And the Ukrainians have shown in the past couple of weeks that they can use it effectively. For a while people said, oh you know, you can't support the Ukrainian military because it's just a ragtag group of demoralized people who aren't going to do anything effectively. But actually the record the past couple of weeks is -- shows that in fact this is a capable organization. And there have been Pentagon officials meeting with Ukrainians to try to figure out what kind of assistance would be useful for them.

  • 13:20:51

    NNAMDIMichael Birnbaum, both countries have invited international monitors from OSC, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to examine evidence from these latest incidents which they're calling a goodwill gesture. What should we read into this?

  • 13:21:09

    BIRNBAUMWell, I think that on the Russian side it is a signal that they do feel some pressure, that they want to have that stamp of international legitimacy on the claims that they're making that they are not feeding in. They're not allowing a lot of troops over the border, equipment over the border, volunteers over the border into Ukraine on the Ukrainian side.

  • 13:21:43

    SESTANOVICHThere are a fair number of observers already in place in Donetsk and Luhansk. They've been there for the last couple of months. They've had a tremendous amount of trouble operating, a number of them, two teams who were taken hostage and held hostage for two months. So I think that the observers have felt pretty cautious about what they could go out and observe on Ukrainian soil for the last couple of weeks.

  • 13:22:14

    NNAMDIMichael, just a month or two ago we were hearing reports of Ukrainian forces giving up their positions, leaving behind equipment as rebels moved in. But early this month government forces retook the city of Sloviansk. How important was that victory and how strong are Ukrainian forces right now as Russian troops again gather on the border?

  • 13:22:35

    BIRNBAUMWell, I was in Sloviansk just a couple of days ago. And I was kind of exploring the territory that had been held by the rebels until that July 5 date when they pulled back into Donetsk, the city of nearly a million people that has become their fortified stronghold. And it's a little hard to tell. It was, of course, an important victory for the Ukrainian military.

  • 13:23:01

    BIRNBAUMAt the same time I talked to people on the ground who said, really these rebels were quite well dug in. They had a lot of weapons. Their supply routes were indeed being increasingly cut off. That's probably why they retreated into Donetsk. But they weren't necessarily pushed into Donetsk and, you know, pitched the battle. They kind of disappeared all of a sudden. They pulled back.

  • 13:23:28

    BIRNBAUMAnd now that they have fortified themselves in this much bigger city, the challenges the Ukrainian military are in some ways much higher. Because it's a dense city, it's a big city. The rebels have really dug in and urban combat is just a tremendously different game here. Sloviansk is a relatively small town. It's surrounded by fields. It is relatively easy to control access to, these access roads. And Donetsk is just going to be something completely different.

  • 13:24:06

    BIRNBAUMThe Ukrainian military has said it's not going to engage in airstrikes or anything like that on Donetsk. But it's just not clear, you know, how they're going to be able to press that assault against this new fortified rebel stronghold.

  • 13:24:21

    NNAMDII have two emails that I'd like to read to both of you and then ask you both a final question. An email from John says, "I've read that Vladimir Putin has wanted to take back Ukraine since the early 1990s. Is that even remotely feasible considering that the international community is pretty united against it? How realistic is an all out war between these two sides?"

  • 13:24:42

    NNAMDIAnd an email from Beth in D.C. says, "The Russian Duma withdrew an authorization to invade Ukraine in response to the sanctions by the U.S. and Europe. This made no news in this country but it was certainly an important development and tends to show that our approach is working." The question for both of you is, well, your opinions about where we're headed in this crisis, starting with you, Michael. How does it feel as you cover this story from the region?

  • 13:25:11

    BIRNBAUMWell, I think the biggest takeaway I had from spending some time on the ground there -- and I'm going to be there again pretty soon -- is just how divided the Ukrainians are, how angry people in the east of Ukraine are, even if they don't all that much sympathize with the rebels, how angry they are at the government in Kiev and at the Ukrainian military. Their sense is that they've been hit -- a lot of residential buildings have been damaged. They're also angry with the rebels, who they say kind of brought this on their heads.

  • 13:25:48

    BIRNBAUMAnd this is a tremendously divided society at this point. You get the same attitude, tremendous hatred for the east when you're in Kiev or in other parts of government in those territories. And so however this military conflict ends, there's going to be tremendous difficulties to stitch Ukraine back together again. This is always a divided country and now it is far more divided.

  • 13:26:14

    NNAMDIMichael Birnbaum is Moscow bureau chief for the Washington Post. Michael, thank you for joining us. And Stephen Sestanovich, I'd like to hear your view on the same thing.

  • 13:26:22

    BIRNBAUMThanks so much for having me.

  • 13:26:24

    SESTANOVICHWell, Kojo, I began by saying that Russia faces a choice about how much further to push this after seeing that it really hasn't been a terribly successful operation. I think the Ukrainian government faces a similar choice. And it is in some ways an even more difficult one because they can't just pull back as Putin can. They do face the challenge that Michael describes, which is that trying to reunify a divided society. That is an immediate choice for them in deciding whether or not to go forward with military operations. It could be very destructive even if they allowed -- made it possible to mop up the separatists. But -- or to accept a ceasefire that would maybe allow the separatists to hold on.

  • 13:27:11

    SESTANOVICHThere's a longer term issue though here which is how to find a formula for putting this kind of deep, deep crisis, a near civil war, behind them. And that is going to be a big challenge for the leadership in Kiev that will extend well beyond any mopping up operations that take place in the next few weeks or months.

  • 13:27:33

    NNAMDIStephen Sestanovich is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He's a professor of international diplomacy at Columbia University in New York and the author of "Maximalist: America in the World From Truman to Obama." Thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:27:45


  • 13:27:46

    NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, producing more nutritional foods as a way to reduce hunger and malnutrition and the possible role of GMOs, always controversial. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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