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Diplomacy's War of Words; U.N. Releases Report on Ukraine; Imagine a World

Aired April 18, 2014 - 14:00:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the special weekend edition of our program. I'm Christiane Amanpour.

From Kiev to Damascus, from Moscow to Caracas, there are very few international conflicts and debates where the actions and position of the United States is not influential. In Ukraine, the United States stands solidly behind the interim government and slapped sanctions on Russian officials after Moscow annexed Crimea.

But as Moscow continues to play out a similar drama in Eastern Ukraine right now, the nation and its neighbors want to know what the U.S. is going to do, if anything, to prevent any further land grabs.

The people of Syria, of course, have been asking that sad question for three years now. Despite laying out a red line over chemical weapons, the White House has kept a hands-off policy there. And then there's the tricky question of how the United States stretches over the head of government to reach the people in countries such as Iran and Cuba.

In a world that is increasingly consumed by a war of words and polarizing propaganda, the art of public diplomacy is paramount and the new U.S. undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs has his work most definitely cut out for him.

Rick Stengel, who was sworn in by Secretary of State John Kerry this week, is actually a fellow journalist and former colleague as managing editor of "Time" magazine. Now he steps into the powerful role of telling America's story and laying out its foreign policy goals for the world.


JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: This is a moment of transition in the world of diplomacy and having somebody here who is ready to think out of the box, knows how to think out of the box and knows how to communicate in this modern age, is really important.


AMANPOUR: And since communicating clearly will surely the hallmark of success, we here were delighted to test-run the new undersecretary in his first television interview.


AMANPOUR: Rick Stengel, welcome.

Your first interview as undersecretary of state. Your boss, John Kerry, announced a deal along with the Russians to deescalate the confrontation in Ukraine. And one of those elements was that all these pro-Russian separatists had to leave the buildings that they had commandeered, et cetera.

They have refused point-blank to do it.

What happens next?

RICHARD STENGEL, U.S. UNDERSECRETARY OF STATE FOR PUBLIC DIPLOMACY: Well, the secretary said, Christiane, as you know, that the proof of the pudding is in the actions. It's fine to have an agreement on paper but President Putin has to show that there is some movement there. The people have to leave the buildings. They have to defuse the situation.

And in fact, the secretary, I believe, said this morning that we need to see some progress this weekend, otherwise there will be other things in the offing.

AMANPOUR: Such as sanctions?

STENGEL: Such as sanctions.

AMANPOUR: So these separatist leaders are saying, wow, Lavrov and Putin, they might have signed for themselves, not for us.

STENGEL: Well, I can't answer what they have to say. But we want to see whether Putin has influence on them and whether he can change this situation on the ground.

Again, they're fine words; it was excellent that they met. But we need to see some action on the ground.

AMANPOUR: Your job is in public diplomacy and public affairs. How do you win this war of words between the United States and Russia right now?

You interviewed Vladimir Putin years ago. You know this person.

How does one win this war?

STENGEL: Well, there are a few questions there. So public diplomacy is really about soft power, the power of ideas, of our ideas, of our actions, of our policy and how to communicate that.

Since I've been in this job and since the annexation of Crimea, I've been really amazed by the power of the Russian propaganda machine, how well organized it is, how vertically integrated, how modern it is.

In fact, I would argue that basically after the Cold War, we almost disbanded our efforts in that regard, figuring we had won. It was then that the Russians began to ramp up their efforts. So what we see with things like Russia today with the Russian social media presence, they've been building that for 10 years.


AMANPOUR: -- their England language --

STENGEL: -- yes, their English language channel ,which is -- which people can see -- and, by the way, which we of course tolerate here in the U.S. at the same time it's Moscow has closed Voice of America in Russia. So that just --

AMANPOUR: So they're winning.

STENGEL: -- discrepancy -- well, I wouldn't say that. The very fact that they have to close our service in Russia and we allow their service here is evidence that we're winning. And in the sense that in the battle of ideas, when we're talking about free expression, freedom of religion, freedom of movement, I think that demonstrates that on our side.

AMANPOUR: But they have created a very successful narrative that we are there to help these poor beleaguered pro-Russians in Eastern Ukraine who are under threat from these fascists in Kiev, the government that you, the United States, supports. They are winning that argument.

STENGEL: Well, I don't know if they're winning it. They're making a powerful play. Their argument is pretty comprehensive. So for example, one of the things we've done just since I've been at the State Department is started up something called the New Ukraine Task Force, which is a social media hub in Russian to talk to Russian speakers in Eastern Ukraine and to talk to Russian speakers in that area in Central Europe, who are bombarded by Russian media.

So yes, they have flooded the zone. And we're trying to figure out how to combat that. And as I say, you know, they have been -- they have a -- they'd had a 10-year plan and we're seeing the evidence of it now.

AMANPOUR: What struck you when you interviewed Putin?

STENGEL: I believe that was the interview -- it was 2007 and we had an interview and then we went upstairs in the dacha to dinner. And it was there that he said almost in a wistful way, but a mixture of wistfulness and anger, that the greatest tragedy of the 20th century was the dismemberment, the dismantlement of the Soviet Union.

And of course to our ears, that's -- it's hard to even process that. But he talked very passionately about Russians who are no longer within the territorial integrity of Russia. He was in mourning for the passing of the Soviet Union.

AMANPOUR: So that was when you were a journalist.

Now as an undersecretary, you're seeing the results of that feeling playing out.


AMANPOUR: Would you ever have thought that it would play out to this extent when he made that statement to you?

STENGEL: You know, it's funny; as a journalist, you're more observational. Now what I look at is this violation of international norms, the violation of international law, the violation of the territorial integrity of Ukraine.

I mean, those things are unacceptable in the 21st century, as the secretary said, this is 20th century behavior. And we have to respond in a 21st century way.

But it's complex. It's not easy.

AMANPOUR: The secretary said that one of the things he appreciated about you is that you will think out of the box.

You have a pretty tough challenge right now, because for the first time in a long time, a majority of Americans believe that your story or your country is not as powerful as it used to be, coupled with a spike in anti-American, anti-Western feelings around the world, in many of these countries where you're seeing crises, whether it be Russia or Egypt or wherever.

How do you tell the story, convince the rest of the world that America is not the bad guy and convince Americans that America still is a powerful player?

STENGEL: Let's take the former before the latter. I do still -- I'm a devout believer in the power of the American brand, the power of American ideas. The power of shared values between us and people around the world, I believe that we are standing for what's going on in the future, i.e., freedom of expression, innovation, entrepreneurship, all of those things that are powerful about the American image and the American brand.

I think there's many, many opportunities for collaboration and America still is a beacon for so many people around the world. People still want to come here for higher education, which we lead the world and it's a great comparative advantage for us.

So I like our chances there. I feel good about that. I feel -- but domestically, it is a little bit of a different situation. There is a bit of a feeling of isolationism; there's a bit of a feeling that we shouldn't be so engaged in the world. I think we have to rebut that. I think the engagement of the U.S. in the world is a powerful advantage for us, powerful economically.

We spend on foreign aid and the State Department altogether only 1 percent of the federal budget. People think it's 10, 20 times of that. And it comes back to us in a multifold of ways.

So I think we have to be able to tell that story. The secretary tells that story all the time. The president obviously believes that story. But we have to persuade Americans about that, too.

AMANPOUR: What do you say, for instance, to Egyptian authorities who are busy arresting journalists and violating all the kind of norms that America holds them up to in return for American aid?

What do you say -- again, to Russians and people like that, who just say, well, America is imperialist; America is trying to do regime change in the guise of precisely what you're talking about?

STENGEL: Well, I think we are a model of anti-imperialism. I mean, if you look at even in engagement over the past couple of decades, what you have coming out of it is elections; you have people having freedom of choice to determine their own form of government.

You know, you mentioning journalism, I mean, one of the things we're seeing that I'm very disturbed about is that actual targeting of journalists -- I mean, we've been around long enough to remember well, sometimes we just got caught in the crossfire and were collateral damage, not that that's something to be looked on positively either.

But now the actual targeting of journalists in places around the world is something new. And we really do have to combat that.

AMANPOUR: You've talked about trying to appeal to the Russian and Ukrainian people through a social media initiative that you're starting. You've tried that or at least the State Department has in the past, with Iran, with Cuba, with varying degrees of success and in some cases outright failure, for instance, in Cuba.

How do you think what you're going to do is going to be any different?

STENGEL: Well, I think we've -- we have to be smarter about it. We are living in the age where all -- where public diplomacy is done at the speed of light, at the speed of social media. And again, one of the differences with compared to what Russia does say and what we do, I mean, the Russians don't have any -- you know, they have -- they can say whatever they want. They are preaching fictions. I mean, you see what happens in the Russian media. It's the greatest fiction since Dostoyevsky. We are --

AMANPOUR: Which they say the same about the American media --

STENGEL: -- well, but I mean, but again, I would differ. And when we look at the facts on the ground, again, I still like our chances. And I wouldn't even hold it up as a 1:1 comparison. I mean, the reach of our popular culture, the reach of the American brand of popular culture is so much greater than what Russia does. We have to remember that.

They are targeting a very specific thing. We have a much broader audience for everything that we do.

AMANPOUR: Rick Stengel, you have your work cut out for you.

Thank you very much.

STENGEL: It's great to see you.

AMANPOUR: Thanks for joining us.


AMANPOUR: So as we said, one of the major issues is that war of words over Ukraine. But is the Kremlin shooting blanks? Because despite Putin's claims, a recent national poll of Ukrainians shows that 85 percent -- including 66 percent who are ethnic Russians -- feel no threat or pressure because of their language.

And an overwhelming majority -- 81 percent -- oppose Russia sending in its army to protect them.

When we come back, we'll punch through the propaganda with a look at the truth on the ground in Crimea and beyond.




AMANPOUR: And welcome back to our special weekend edition.

Just as diplomats from Russia, Ukraine and the West met in Geneva, hoping to defuse an escalating crisis, President Vladimir Putin appeared on television in Russia and asserted the country's historic claim to large swaths of Ukrainian territory, deeming it, quote, "New Russia." And he reasserted his authority to invade Ukraine if necessary.

As the rhetoric ratchets up, a U.N. report this week examines the Russian playbook in all its cynical detail.

Far from being fair, that Crimea referendum on joining Russia back on March 16th was peppered with many reports of vote rigging. And far from being a spontaneous outpouring of fear and loathing for Ukraine, the report finds that, too, was fed by a diet of relentless Kremlin propaganda.

I spoke with Ivan Simonovic, the U.N. assistant secretary-general for human rights. He's a former Croatian justice minister and he wrote the report.


AMANPOUR: Welcome to the program, Mr. Simonovic.


AMANPOUR: Let me start -- I've quoted a little bit about what you found. Let me just start by putting to you Russia's criticism of your report, saying that the report on Ukraine is one-sided and politicized. It seems fabricated, says the foreign ministry.

What's your answer to that?

SIMONOVIC: Well, we are not here to establish politically balanced report or to take sides. We just observe facts and we report based on facts. And this is what we were doing for this report and this is what we will continue to do.

I firmly believe that by doing that and by publicly reporting, we could help to deescalate tensions.

AMANPOUR: Well, tensions are really sky-high right now. So let's see if we can deconstruct this. Describe for me what you unearthed about, as I mentioned, the people's freedom to express their real free vote and will in the Crimea referendum.

SIMONOVIC: We were not examining the legality of the Crimean referendum. But we paid attention to human rights violations that were related to referendum. For example, the activities of the civil society were impeded. There were some arrests, some enforced disappearances, cases of torture. We still have some missing persons.

There were no free consultations about the questions at the referendum and unfortunately something similar has been repeated now, with the passing of the so-called Crimean constitution.

AMANPOUR: Well, what do you mean by that, the -- what do you mean by specifically the Crimean constitution?

SIMONOVIC: There were no consultations. So we are hearing a lot of allegations coming from Crimean Tatars, that constitution was passed without any time and opportunity to express their views.


And of course, many -- in fact the Tatar leader told me that the majority of the Tatar population there actually boycotted the referendum.

But can I ask you this, because one of the things we hear all the time from Russia and from Russians in Russia is that oh, my goodness, Russia has to come to the rescue of people inside Eastern Ukraine or Crimea, who are being beaten up, who are being assaulted by, quote, "fascists," neo-Nazi movements.

What did you find about those kinds of complaints? Did they stand up?

SIMONOVIC: We identify some cases of people being harassed because of being close to former political establishment and President Yanukovych, a number of them being Russian-speaking or Russians themselves.

So there were cases of harassment but they were neither widespread nor systemic. We have also identified that those cases were overblown by propaganda and that such a propaganda was used to spread a feeling of fear and insecurity. It had significant impact in Crimea and we are witnessing something similar in Eastern Ukraine.

AMANPOUR: Well, I do want to get to Eastern Ukraine. But describe for me then the propaganda, as you put it, that was being pumped into Crimea. What kind of a diet of media were people getting there?

SIMONOVIC: One of problems that we faced in Crimea was first cutting of the channels, television channels, that were broadcast from Ukraine. So in a way, it was attempt to have a monopoly of information.

And then information quite often consisted of some cases where some violations that have taken place were exaggerated. And also there were some unfounded rumors that were spread about trains coming filled with extremists well armed and wishing to prosecute Russian population.

That has contributed to create the climate of fear and insecurity.

AMANPOUR: So what are you finding?

Have you been to other parts, in other words, Eastern Ukraine, which we're witnessing right now, and what have you found there?

SIMONOVIC: I have been in Kharkiv. It was a resting place already then, but the situation has considerably deteriorated. It's not that number of protesters have decreased.

There are not that many protesters we are -- we are speaking about a couple of thousands and at the time, we were hearing about some people who were coming from out of the region, participating in protests.

But the dangerous trend right now is that protests are becoming more and more violent and that increasing number of protesters are being armed. And that makes situation extremely dangerous and it does also impose a risk of situations spiraling out of control.

AMANPOUR: You are Croatian; Croatia and the rest of the Balkans went through a terrible and similar process during the '90s.

As you do your investigations, do you see any similarity between what happened under Milosevic and what is happening now?

In other words, are you worried by history looking like it's repeating itself?

SIMONOVIC: There certainly are some similarities concerning manifestation. However, I strongly believe that there will be an effective preventive action taken to prevent the tragedy that has happened in former Yugoslavia. I think that through impartial monitoring and public reporting, we can contribute to deescalation and prevention of such a tragic outcome.

AMANPOUR: But Mr. Simonovic, is there the appetite for this kind of monitoring? It's been very rare. Yours is one of the rare reports. Monitors have had a notoriously hard time getting into either Crimea or Eastern Ukraine.

You know, what kind of real deescalation can you actually see happening?

And I ask you as a rapporteur and as a politician, steeped in the knowledge of that region, how do you see this resolving itself?

SIMONOVIC: We are not just monitoring and reporting. Of course, that by itself is important because if you establish some facts about human rights violations, you are, in fact, inciting government to do something about it.

But you also issue recommendations. And we did issue recommendations to curb any form of hate speech and also what is at the moment, I would say, most important, it is to prevent arming of protesters and transforming them into paramilitary troops.

Whoever arms protesters can be held accountable for potential tragic consequences.

AMANPOUR: On that note, U.N. Assistant Secretary-General Ivan Simonovic, thank you very much indeed for joining me.

And after a break, imagine a special relationship between two world leaders. No, it is not the long-established bond between the United States and Britain but a bromance between a modern-day Russian czar, who we've just been talking about, and an Italian Caesar whose salad days may be over. We'll explain when we return.




AMANPOUR: And finally tonight, while President Putin continues to make like a czar, officially ending a 30-year marriage that makes him the first Russian leader since Peter the Great to be divorced and reinvigorating Peter's dreams of empire, his closest friend among former senior Western leaders and now fellow bachelor, the Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, faces a challenge of his own.

Imagine a world where a modern-day Caesar has been stripped of his laurels and sentenced to community service. The 77-year-old billionaire convicted last year of tax fraud has been ordered to serve one-half day a week at a nursing home near his villa outside Milan.

The flamboyant Berlusconi will also have to limit the lush life with a nightly curfew and a ban on associating with known criminals. Some say the man who famously received this slap on the head at an E.U. summit back in 2007 has now been given a mere slap on the wrist.

Still, as the leader of Forza Italia (ph), his center right opposition party, he is free to travel to Rome three days a week and Silvio is also free to advise his friend, Vladimir, who reportedly still uses him as a sounding board for what he sees as a lack of respect from the United States and the European Union.

Caesar may have lost his crown, but not his influence, not in Moscow, anyway.

And that's it for our program tonight. Remember you can always contact us at our website,, and follow me on Twitter and Facebook. Thank you for watching and goodbye from New York.