Ukrainian Cities In Turmoil Over Russian Connection

Guest Host Tess Vigeland talks with NPR's Ari Shapiro about the latest protests in eastern Ukraine. Julia Ioffe of The New Republic explains why Russia's power plays for influence in eastern Ukraine may stop short of outright invasion.

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TESS VIGELAND, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. Arun Rath is away. I'm Tess Vigeland. The situation in Eastern Ukraine seems to be getting worse. This morning, gunmen in camouflage fatigues took over a police station in the city of Slavyansk. In Donetsk, the regional police chief has yielded to the demands of pro-Russian protesters and stepped down. NPR's Ari Shapiro is in Ukraine. He spent the last several days covering the demonstrations in the east. And Ari, tell us about this latest move by demonstrators.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Well, there were a few different things that happened today. As you say, armed men took control of a building in Slavyansk. That city is very near Donetsk where I spent most of the last week reporting on a government building there that was occupied by pro-Russian demonstrators. And in Donetsk today, those activists marched down the street to police headquarters, chanted outside, demanding that the chief step down, which he did to cheers.

Then the protesters went inside the building and a source in the police force tells us cops stayed in the building to guard the weapons, but otherwise protesters roamed freely throughout the building. And according to this officer they were not aggressive.

VIGELAND: So what's the significance of that move, this police chief stepping down?

SHAPIRO: Well, he was in an almost untenable position because many of the people in his police force sympathize with the activists. This town is just over the Russian border. The officer who I mentioned a moment ago told me that every day his parents call him and say, if they tell you to shoot at the demonstrators don't do it. And he replies, I won't, mom.

He was complaining to me the last month he was supposed to go to a relative's wedding just over the border in Russia and he couldn't because of the tensions with Ukraine. He blames Kiev for that. And this is a police officer who was supposed to be opposing the protesters. So, as you can imagine, the chief of police was in a very difficult position.

VIGELAND: Well, the central government in Kiev is using some pretty tough language in response to these protests.

SHAPIRO: Yes. The interior minister says he has zero tolerance for what he calls armed terrorists. But words are different from actions. And yesterday, the prime minister made some concessions to the armed protesters. Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk visited Donetsk where he expressed support for more regional autonomy. That's one of the things these protests have been demanding.

It seems that the government is reaching out an olive branch. At least they were before this latest expansion of the protests, because nobody wants to see bloodshed on either side. But both sides are heavily armed and it's not hard to see how this could become violent if things go wrong.

VIGELAND: Ari, do we know what exactly the protesters are demanding?

SHAPIRO: There have been various demands over the last week from people in different cities. And depending on the individuals you talk to, some want a vote on independence, some people want Russian President Vladimir Putin to send in troops and tanks. But I recently learned an expression in Ukrainian which I'm going to not try in Ukrainian but in English. It amounts to, in order to get what you want, ask for more than what you want.

And based on my conversations in the last week, I think that may be what's going on here. In order to have more influence in the presidential election and more sway in the country generally, occupying these buildings sort of gets the job done.

VIGELAND: How long can they stay in those buildings?

SHAPIRO: Well, I was in the building in Donetsk yesterday and you could see stockpiles suggesting they plan to be there a long time. And a lot of the people organizing this occupation served in the Soviet military in Afghanistan. They were in Yugoslavia. So they are used to living in stark conditions under duress. I think it could be a while.

VIGELAND: NPR's Ari Shapiro in Kiev. Thanks so much.

SHAPIRO: You're welcome.

VIGELAND: Donetsk and Slavyansk are not the only parts of Ukraine facing unrest. Earlier this week, pro-Russian protestors took to the streets in Luhansk and Kharkiv. Those are places most Americans haven't heard of since the Cold War. And even that may be generous. A couple of days ago, a Washington Post poll found only one in six Americans can find Ukraine on a map. But the location of cities like Donetsk and Slavyansk does matter. Russia says these cities are so culturally tied to Moscow that they're basically Russian cities.

We asked Julia Ioffe of the New Republic whether that's true.

JULIA IOFFE: These cities are on the south and east of Ukraine but the differences between that area and the west are a little bit overstated. So everybody basically in the east of the country still speaks Ukrainian. They just also speak Russian as their primary language. And everybody in the west speaks Russian. They just prefer to speak Ukrainian. So these linguistic and cultural tensions are really kind of overblown by Russia.

VIGELAND: Julia, there's been a lot of speculation about whether Russia will invade eastern Ukraine but you've written that really all Vladimir Putin needs to do is destabilize Ukraine or even create the illusion that Ukraine is unstable. Why?

IOFFE: That's right. So Russia doesn't need to invade Ukraine to achieve its ultimate goal, which is to make Ukraine unstable to show the West that the government in Kiev can't control the entire territory of the country, that it's basically becoming a failed state. So the troops are there on one hand to intimidate the Ukrainians to intimidate the West. But on the other hand, they're also there because he hasn't yet decided it seems whether or not he's going to invade.

VIGELAND: And yet even if they don't have to invade, you know, there are pictures out this week that show that there are forces, Russian forces, massing very near the eastern border of Ukraine.

IOFFE: Yes. And that serves two purposes. On one hand it shows that the Russians are serious and that they need to be dealt with and concessions have to be made. And the other is because they might invade. But right now they're there to show some muscle and to force concessions from Ukraine and the West.

VIGELAND: Well, the other way they're trying to do that of course is economically. Russia has been increasing gas prices for Ukraine. It's refusing to forgive Ukrainian debt. How do actions like those affect Russia's political power inside Ukraine?

IOFFE: The Kremlin rarely knows what it's going to do when it starts doing things. Putin rarely think more than a couple steps ahead. So in the short term, it's forcing - or he thinks it's going to force Kiev and the West to make certain concessions to him. In the long term, the line among Russia watchers is that Putin got Crimea but lost Ukraine, which was a very close ally up until now.

So things like this may force some political concessions but ultimately they alienate what was a very friendly country.

VIGELAND: Even if Vladimir Putin is, as you say, really only kind of looking one or two steps ahead and not beyond that into the future, is it still fair to say that he is single-handedly setting the international agenda here?

IOFFE: Absolutely. He is winning and that's definitely the view inside Russia, that he can do whatever he wants and there's nothing the west can do to stop him. Which so far has been true. He wanted Crimea. He was able to do that within a couple of weeks very elegantly, I must say, without a shot being fired, without, you know, he can still say that there was no invasion.

You know, they're taking advantage of the fact that they have tremendous economic power over Europe because Europe is very tied in with the Russian economy. And they're using that to their advantage in creating daylight between the U.S. and European positions. And the view in Russia, and it's my view as well, that Putin is winning. He's getting away with it.

VIGELAND: Julia Ioffe is senior editor at the New Republic magazine. Julia, thank you so much.

IOFFE: Thanks for having me.

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