On The Ground In Crimea Amid Diplomatic Tussle

The White House announced Sunday that President Obama will host Ukraine's interim prime minister Wednesday. It is another diplomatic move to peacefully resolve the standoff with Russia over Crimea. NPR's Arun Rath talks with reporter Emily Harris about the situation.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

In Washington today, President Obama announced he will host Ukraine's prime minister on Wednesday. It's another diplomatic show of support in the so-far-unsuccessful attempt to peacefully resolve the standoff with Russia over Crimea.

NPR's Emily Harris spent the last few days in Crimea and is now in Kiev. Emily, what is it like on the ground now in Crimea?

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: It's a little bit odd, Arun. There's regular life going on, people going shopping. The streets are filled with people doing their normal business. But around parliament, right outside the airport, around other buildings, there are groups of people who call themselves the self-defense forces of Crimea. They're a mixed bunch, some young, some old, almost all men wearing a variety of different clothing, mostly unarmed. Some have metal shields.

The main square has Russian and Crimean flags flying. I went two hours north today from Simferopol along the main road - one of the main roads that goes out of Crimea. And just past the border of Crimea, so technically on the mainland of Ukraine, troops are there digging in. There are sandbags. There is a trench dug off to one side of the road. There are men in uniform without insignia carrying AK-47s, sniper rifles.

There are six tents set up along the side of the road. They're obviously living there. No insignia on their uniforms, but the vehicles that are around are Russian-made armor personnel carriers and trucks.

RATH: Wow. Now, Crimean authorities are planning a referendum for a week from today. There's going to be a vote if residents want to become a part of Russia. What difference is the referendum going to make?

HARRIS: Well, it kind of gets at the heart of what is a very fundamental point of disagreement here. Russia says the change of government in Ukraine, the overthrowing of ex-president Viktor Yanukovych after the months of demonstrations and then the deadly violence in Kiev, Russia says that that change of government was illegitimate.

The U.S., European allies and the Ukrainian government now in power in Kiev says that the vote in the Crimean parliament, which is, as you remember, an autonomous republic so has some greater authority than other regions of Ukraine to govern themselves. But they say the vote to put a new prime minister in place there was illegal. And obviously, they believe the decision by Russia to send troops into Crimea was illegal under international law.

So we have these two different fundamental views, so the referendum will most likely just deepen that gap. And the U.S. has made clear they would not recognize any annexation of Crimea by Russia no matter the outcome of this referendum.

RATH: Though, as we mentioned, the west has so far not really managed to get far towards finding a path to a peaceful resolution. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel said today that after a phone call with President Putin, they haven't even agreed on creating a forum, a contact group to talk about Crimea. What are the options?

HARRIS: The U.S. and Europe and Ukraine have made clear the options at this point are limited to political-economic sanction type of options. One of President Obama's national security advisers made it clear today that sanctions could continue to go up. Chancellor Merkel said the same thing. If a contact group is not formed in the next few days, they can impose further travel restrictions, more broad economic sanctions.

Russia, it looks like from some of the demands they're making, is interested in ensuring in some way that there's a guarantee that political parties sympathetic to Moscow would retain some kind of role in governing Ukraine. Moscow points to an agreement signed February 21st and some of the promises of constitutional change in that that the Kremlin would like to see happen. But, as you mentioned, the two sides haven't even started to agree to talk at all, let alone figure out parameters of any discussion.

RATH: NPR's Emily Harris in Kiev. Emily, thank you.

HARRIS: Thanks, Arun.

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