Tensions Rise In Ukraine Standoff

New tensions are flaring between Russian and Ukraine, as Russia signaled that it was prepared to annex Crimea. NPR's Scott Simon speaks with New York Times reporter Steven Erlanger.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

To Ukraine now where tensions continue to rise between that country's new government and Russia. Yesterday, pro-Russian soldiers held a standoff at a Ukrainian military base and although it seemed to end without incident, it shows just how quickly the situation has become militarized. We're joined now by Steven Erlanger, reporter for the New York Times, who's in Kiev. Steven, thanks so much for being with us.

STEVEN ERLANGER: Happy to be here.

SIMON: What do we know about this standoff yesterday in Crimea?

ERLANGER: Well, it ended in the middle of the night and it ended without bloodshed. It seems to have been a sort of test by the local Russians at this particular base. They drove a truck at gates, they went into a compound, but no shots were fired. The two commanders negotiated and then the Russian's left, so it was very hard to get any real lessons out of it except as a reminder that the thin Ukrainian military on Crimea which was never there to defend Crimea are essentially hostages. They've been taken prisoners by these Russia soldiers in unmarked uniforms and it's becoming a big issue for the Ukrainian government because they don't want to give the Russian's a provocation to actually fire on anybody and pretend that there's some kind of war. At the same time, they have people who have sworn their duty to Ukraine, who are standing tall and brave and calm but really are effectively being held hostage to larger the geopolitical problems.

SIMON: Crimea's local parliament announced it's going to hold a referendum in a week on whether to join Russia or remain part of Ukraine. Do you need a crystal ball to - well, if you had one, how do you think that vote might fall?

ERLANGER: Well, my crystal ball tends to be a little cynical. I mean, I think Moscow ordered up this referendum and Moscow will decide how it goes, to have the vote go in favor of joining the Russian Federation. The other option is increased autonomy within Ukraine, so that gives some room for negotiation for this week and I think in the end probably Putin hasn't decided which way to go, but his options are quite clear.

If he chooses to have Crimea vote that way he will. There will be no international observers at this election and there will be no people watching the counting. And if you actually ask the Crimean population, which are majority, you know, ethnic Russian, it would still be a very narrow thing. It wouldn't be quite as obvious. Many of them, including the Crimean Tatars want to stay within Ukraine, but there's a lot of pressure there and there are armed people on the streets.

It's not a comfortable situation and, you know, I think the vote will be whatever Putin decides it will be.

SIMON: And do you have a feeling for how the Ukrainian government might respond?

ERLANGER: Well, they've made their response quite clear, which is that they say it's not constitutional because I think Article 73 of the Ukrainian constitution says any border changes have to come from a referendum in all of Ukraine. So they don't recognize the legality of this referendum. They don't even recognize the legality of the Crimean so-called government because these people took power and throughout people appointed by Kiev, and they are quite confident that the international community won't recognize the legality of this referendum either.

But of course, none of that will matter if Russia decides to keep Crimea.

SIMON: Steven Erlanger of the New York Times in Kiev. Thanks so much for being with us.

ERLANGER: Thank you, Scott.

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