Ukranian Flag Back On Goverment Building In Donetsk

Andrew Roth, a correspondent for The New York Times, tells David Greene some of the demonstrators in Donetsk were actually Russian citizens — sent into Ukraine by Moscow.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene. Good morning.

One enduring image in Ukraine has been the Russian flag, flying atop some government buildings. In Crimea, and in eastern cities like Donetsk and Kharkiv, pro-Russian protesters raised that flag. But it appears that some of those protesters were not Ukrainians calling for Russia's help, but Russians who traveled in from across the border. Whoever they are, this morning, they were driven out by police from a government building in the city of Donetsk. Now they have retaken that building. Ukraine's flag was flying there briefly today. Now the Russian flag is back.

We spoke with New York Times correspondent Andrew Roth, who is in Donetsk.

These pro-Russian demonstrators have been such an important part of this story. I mean, who are these pro-Russian protesters?

ANDREW ROTH: The crowd is actually quite varied: a lot of pensioners and retirees who are speaking very strongly about Russia, a lot of young guys who look a little bit tough, and as I found out when I came here to Donetsk, a couple of Russians, as well. These are people who are based in Moscow. They are Russians. They live in Russia, and they come over to watch and maybe to give some advice.

The thing about these protests is that they happened in 11 cities on Saturday. It was very sudden. They're fairly well-organized, and there are a lot of rumors about people being bussed in across the border, as well. It sort of raises the question, at least, of how much these are being coordinated or inspired by Moscow. They certainly play very strongly into this idea that Russia needs to come in and protect ethnic Russian minorities from the new government in Kiev.

GREENE: Well, you actually found the person who raised the Russian flag in another eastern city in Ukraine, Kharkiv. Can you remind us who that was? He was Russian, as well.

ROTH: Yes. I mean, when the photo was taken, first of all, a lot of people recognized him as a Russian who had done these kinds of flag-raisings this before. We checked with hotel staff. He did, in fact, stay at the hotel by the square, where he came out. And he was the person who scaled the building and put the flag up. And afterwards, he wrote a blog post about it, and he said: I was happy to raise the flag over that building.

This is a person who also has a history of being part of a pro-Kremlin youth group in Russia. And that image of him raising the flag is another really important part of the narrative for Moscow, in this case. Otherwise, I mean, during that same protest, a hundred people were beaten in the streets, in the main square of that city, pro-Western demonstrators who were already in the administration building, and they were sort of dragged out and beaten.

If it hadn't been for that flag being raised, you could see this more as a lynch mob, rather than an expression of ethnic Russians asking for Russia to help them. And I think that a lot of them would just like to be left alone.

GREENE: I mean, does this tell us that there might not be as much support for Russia as we've come to think so far?

ROTH: I don't think that, overall, everybody here supports Russia coming in, or that there's a very clear line that every ethnic Russian really all want Russia to come and actually invade this part of the Ukraine and to protect them. There's not as much support, I would say, for Kiev, either, for the new government that's been produced by the Maidan there, as well. People approach politics very warily.

GREENE: Have you spoken to Ukrainians - ethnic Russian or otherwise - who want Vladimir Putin to bring troops in and either help this part of the country separate, or even, you know, in theory, become part of Russia?

ROTH: Yes, certainly. I mean, there are people, certainly, especially at these protests. But also, occasionally, I've noticed more with people who are older. They seem to look at Russia with a real sense of either fondness, or sort of the memory of a very strong power. Ukraine, for them, is quite young, still, in their minds. It's only 20 years old, and we've seen a lot of revolutions and changes in power in that time. So for them, yeah, there are some people who do support it. But I think on the younger generation, there's a lot of hesitancy towards Russia, and a little bit of fear that they're being used in sort of a geopolitical struggle between the East and the West.

GREENE: Andrew Roth is a correspondent with The New York Times, speaking to us from the Eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk.

Andrew, thanks so much.

ROTH: Thanks, David.

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