By Mick Krever, CNN
The Ukrainian government has little possibility of keeping its country from falling apart, a top member of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s party told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Thursday.
“There are very few things the Ukrainian government can do now to keep their country together,” Vyacheslav Nikonov said.
President Putin on Thursday denied that there are Russian forces inside eastern Ukraine, but maintained his country’s right to intervene if necessary.
Nikonov warned that Russia would move in militarily if there were “full-scale civil war in Ukraine and government forces using artillery and aircraft against their own people.”
“I would not expect that [to] happen,” he said, but added that the Ukrainian government is “not very adequate” and he is unsure “what are they going to do.”
“I would not see any restraint on the side of the authorities in Kiev. There are not just tanks, which are moving, but also artillery. And there are bombers, which are flying over the protesting people.”
In the southeastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol, a gang of 300 attacked a Ukrainian military base Thursday, leading to gunfire between the two sides. And in Slaviansk, pro-Russian militants are firmly in control.
Kiev and the West accuse Moscow of backing the pro-Russian protesters, and point to the 40,000 Russian troops that NATO says are assembled near the Ukrainian frontier.
“Ukraine now is not a functioning state. It doesn't have a real government. It doesn't have any law enforcement structures. It doesn't have the army because, you know, the army is now switching sides.”
The only chance to maintain unity, he said, is to enact constitutional reform to give eastern and southern Ukraine more autonomy.
“People in [the] south and east should be provided some very serious arguments why they should stay inside Ukraine because, you know, thirty miles from Kharkiv or from Donetsk or from Lugansk there is Russia, where pensions are paid, where salaries are paid, where living standards is four times higher than in Ukraine, and where people speak freely their Russian language.”
Those people “just want to live,” he told Amanpour, and have their rights respected.
The current interim president and prime minister “are nobody for the people in east and south,” he said.
A recent poll of Ukrainians, however, does not seem to back up Russia’s arguments.
According to a poll by the International Republican Institute, among Russian-speaking Ukrainians, 85% say they do not feel under threat because of their language.
And throughout the country, Ukrainians oppose having the Russian army protect Russian-speaking citizens – 61% in the east, 67% in the south, and 81% overall.
“We did not start this whole mess in Ukraine,” he said. “That was a regime change operation, with some American assistance, at least.”
“Victoria Nuland” – U.S. Assistance Secretary of State – “said about five billion U.S. dollars [was] spent to promote democracy in Ukraine, which is oftentimes a code word for regime change.”
Ethnic Russians living in Ukraine are not “puppets of the Russian Federation,” Nikonov said.
“They are threatened. They feel their families threatened, their lives threatened. And so at this situation, tell the people in the east to calm down? They will not do it.”