Ukraine's Crimea Region Full Of Uncertainty, Rapid Changes

Tensions are escalating as armed men take control of airports and set up road blocks in Crimea. NPR's Scott Simon speaks to correspondent Emily Harris, who is in Kiev.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. The Russian Parliament has voted to send troops to Ukraine. President Vladimir Putin said it's necessary to protect the Russian navy based in Crimea and to normalize the situation. The unanimous vote of the Upper House comes just days after anti-government protesters ousted Ukraine's pro-Russian president. Now in Moscow, Russia's deputy foreign minister cautioned that even though the measure to send forces was approved, it didn't mean that troops would be sent into Ukraine right away.

NPR's Emily Harris joins us from Kiev. Emily, thanks for being with us.

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: Hi, Scott.

SIMON: Does this nevertheless - you've been out on the streets today - rouse concerns about an invasion?

HARRIS: Well, on the streets, around the barricades in the central part of Kiev, the feeling is not that there is necessarily going to be an invasion. People aren't talking about troops in Kiev yet. But there is a strong feeling that Crimea is part of Ukraine. Whether Russia would actually send more troops there - the Black Sea fleet is of course already there - people on the streets are saying, we'll see. The acting president of Ukraine, Alexander Turchinov, is quoted in one Ukrainian news source as saying that the vote in Russia's Upper House of Parliament was "an act of direct aggression against the sovereignty of Ukraine." So those could be interpreted as fighting words. The Ukrainian national security council is meeting right now on the situation in Crimea.

SIMON: And for all practical purposes, Russian troops are there already, aren't they?

HARRIS: Well, the Russian Black Sea fleet is based in the Crimea, in the Black Sea. And of course we've seen a lot of pictures and there's lots of reports of armed men in Crimea. It's not clear exactly who is who among all the armed men there. Some have told reporters there that they are Russian. The pro-Russian politician who's now acting as the prime minister of Crimea says that members of Russia's Black Sea fleet are involved in protecting strategic assets in Crimea. Other reports have said that Russian troops have entered Ukrainian military bases and are asking Ukrainian soldiers to join them. The Ukrainian border guards put out a statement saying that armed men claiming to be acting on orders from Moscow tried to enter a military establishment. Those are both not confirmed reports, but you can see that the sense of confusion on the ground of exactly who is who there.

SIMON: What about the new government in Kiev. They issued a statement which is, as you described - at least through the translation - sounds like fighting words. What's their reaction been?

HARRIS: Well, there's not been more reaction than that except to say that earlier today, the Ukrainian president, the acting Ukrainian president accused Russia of trying to provoke a military conflict. This was before the vote in the Russian Parliament. And he referred to Russia's action in the past in other former Soviet regions with large Russian populations and said that Moscow's approach in Crimea is very similar to what Russia did before invading in other former Soviets areas.

So, a great sense of concern, a great sense of uncertainty of what will come next. It's not clear whether this is a still a political game or this is military brinksmanship.

SIMON: And we're told, for example, that the U.N. had I guess special representative Robert Sery was in Russia. He was supposed to head to the Crimea. Anything you've heard about negotiations to talk this thing through?

HARRIS: Sery simply said that the territorial integrity of Ukraine is not to be called into question and this is a time for dialogue and to engage with each other constructively. But it's not clear that those things will actually happen.

SIMON: Thank you. NPR's Emily Harris, speaking with us in Kiev.

HARRIS: Thanks, Scott.

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