Speculation Mounts Over Putin's Plan For Eastern Ukraine

Attention is focusing on whether Russian leader Vladimir Putin will stop at Crimea or order his troops into eastern Ukraine, which also has a sizable pro-Russian population.

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

In Crimea, the semiautonomous peninsula in Southeast Ukraine, there is so far no resistance to Russian forces and their Crimean supporters who are blockading military sites, controlling transportation hubs and guarding government buildings. Attention is now focusing on whether the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, will stop at Crimea, or order his troops into Eastern Ukraine, which also has a sizeable pro-Russian population.

NPR's Peter Kenyon is in the Crimean capital, Simferopol. What is the situation there?

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Well, the latest reports we're hearing are from the border guards who are looking across from a place called Kerch, at a narrow ferry crossing with Russia. We spoke with Sergei Isakov(ph), a border guard spokesman. And the latest report is that the guards at Kerch can see across the ferry crossing about 15 tanks and armored personnel carriers waiting on the Russian side. This is being billed as a buildup of armor.

We have to say we don't know the intentions yet. This could be reinforcements set to come in, or perhaps on standby in case some resistance does develop. So far, we haven't seen any resistance. Ukrainian troops have remained on their bases. A few commanders have switched loyalty to the Crimean prime minister, but Ukraine says its ships remain loyal to Kiev. Essentially, the situation seems fairly stable and under Russian control, with the civilian population generally fairly pleased to see the Russians.

WERTHEIMER: Now, President Putin has official authorization to use military force and his authorization is not limited to Crimea. Is that being interpreted as including the rest of Eastern Ukraine?

KENYON: It is in some circles, yes. And it's quite a concern. British Foreign Secretary William Hague made that point today. He said, clearly, the concern at the moment is, quote, "the possibility of a further move by Russia into other parts of Ukraine." And it's the big eastern cities, such as Kharkiv and Donetsk that are the immediate concern. Moscow hasn't announced any such intention, of course, but if it did decide to move into Eastern Ukraine, it's unlikely it would meet much resistance.

Kharkiv is Ukraine's second-largest city. There's a very large pro-Russian demonstration there dominating the main square. People say while they don't approve of what former President Viktor Yanukovych did, they like even less the behavior of the new government in Kiev since he fled. So, the Russians probably wouldn't get quite the warm welcome they're getting here in Crimea but it certainly wouldn't be much trouble for them to get there and assume control.

WERTHEIMER: And what would be the ramifications of that if they did it? Wouldn't there be a substantial international reaction?

KENYON: I think, at the very least, you would say substantial. I think this would raise the diplomatic stakes dramatically. The West, in general, Europe in particular, would find that completely unacceptable. For Kiev, it would be a dire situation. It can't afford to lose Eastern Ukraine, that's where most of its industrial activity takes place. Without it, it's not clear Ukraine even has a viable economy.

So given the opposition such an incursion might arouse, some people here are speculating perhaps Russia will take a different tact; use Crimea as a model. This is a semiautonomous peninsula. If that is followed by Kharkiv or Donetsk, then that would effectively weaken Kiev's influence and enhance Moscow's. So, that's something Ukraine and the West will be trying hard to avoid.

WERTHEIMER: Now, the rational for the Russian involvement is to protect Russian citizens in Ukraine. Are they, in fact, threatened?

KENYON: I have to say, in the time I've been here, I have not noticed any threats to Russians other than car accidents, petty crime - the usual urban dangers. The people here seem to be going about their business normally. They're happy to see the Russians. There's no threat from the Ukrainian forces or pro-Kiev citizens at all that I've seen. And the message in Russia is quite different and it starts at the top with President Putin who told Francois Hollande of France today, there is a real threat to the lives of Russians.

This is the dispute that's going on. And that's why the Russians seem prepared to back their military move.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Peter Kenyon. Peter, thank you.

KENYON: You're welcome, Linda.

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