Ukraine Military Begins To Move Against Pro-Russian Separatists

The acting Ukrainian president says his military is advancing against pro-Russian separatists who took over government buildings in eastern Ukraine. The separatists didn't comply with an ultimatum.

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

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

And I'm Kelly McEvers.

In Ukraine, the acting president says his military is now on the move against pro-Russian separatists who've taken over government buildings in Eastern Ukraine. This comes after the president gave the separatists an ultimatum to lay down their weapons, and they did not comply.

NPR's Ari Shapiro joins us from the Ukrainian city of Donetsk.

Ari, what exactly does the president mean? I mean, he calls this an anti-terror operation. What does that mean?

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: You remember acting President Oleksander Turchynov said Sunday night that if protesters didn't lay down their weapons by Monday morning, the military would force them out of government buildings. And now he seems to be keeping that promise.

It looks like the operation is starting in the city of Slavyansk, which has been the scene of the most violence in the last few days. Some people died there on Sunday as Special Forces exchanged gunfire with separatists.

On Twitter, images show Ukrainian tanks just outside Slavyansk, not far from the roadblocks that separatists have set up. The acting President Turchynov says this operation will go step-by-step, which means it could take a while.

MCEVERS: So, tanks on the move in Slavyansk, but that's not the only city where separatists have taken over. What about other parts of Eastern Ukraine?

SHAPIRO: As far as we can tell right now, the military is only rolling up to Slavyansk, which is about 60 miles from the regional capital of Donetsk, where we are. Other cities seem to be quiet. But separatists have demonstrated or seized buildings in roughly a dozen cities and towns throughout this region.

And yesterday, they even expanded their footprint after this deadline to lay down arms had passed. They took the mayor's office in the town of Horlivka. When that operation finished, a new commander introduced himself as a lieutenant colonel in the Russian army, sort of a rare moment of clarity in what has been a really murky environment here.

MCEVERS: So, how apparent is the role of Russia in all of this?

SHAPIRO: It has become more apparent in the last week. Now the demonstrations are far more coordinated. The takeovers are far more professional, militaristic. The role of Russia seems much more evident.

Yesterday, I spoke to a woman from the town of Kramatorsk. She said the men guarding the barricades where she lives speak with Russian accents and do not know their way around the city.

Russia still denies orchestrating this, and many locals here will tell you that while there are Russians in the mix, a lot of the demonstrations do, in fact, reflect genuine sentiment from the people who live in Eastern Ukraine and lean towards Russia.

MCEVERS: The West all along has blamed Russia for this. President Obama yesterday spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin. What do you know about their conversation?

SHAPIRO: Apparently, Moscow requested this phone call. And according to a readout from the White House, President Obama urged Russian President Putin to convince separatists to lay down their weapons and leave the buildings that they have seized. He also urged Russia to withdraw its troops from the border, to defuse tensions. So far, obviously, neither of those things seems to have happened.

There is a lot of talk from Western leaders about increasing the sanctions against Russia. So far, the sanctions that Western governments have passed have been pretty weak and appear to have had no real impact on Putin's calculus here.

MCEVERS: NPR's Ari Shapiro in the Ukrainian city of Donetsk. Ari, thanks.

SHAPIRO: You're welcome, Kelly.

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