Tank Movement Increases Tensions In Eastern Ukraine

Several Ukrainian tanks are on the move in some eastern cities, according to reports Wednesday morning. Some of the armored personnel carriers are flying Russian flags.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Tensions remain very high this morning in Eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russia demonstrators stormed the city hall in the city of Donetsk. And there are now reports this morning of several Ukrainian armored personnel carriers on the move in some cities flying Russian flags. To try and sort out what's going on, we have NPR's Ari Shapiro on the line. He is in the Eastern Ukrainian city of Kramatorsk. Ari, good morning.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Hi, David.

GREENE: So have you seen these armored personnel carriers which, as we understand it, are Ukrainian but are now flying the flag of Russia?

SHAPIRO: Right. They are in the city of Slavyansk. We are in the nearby city of Kramatorsk which is where those armored personnel carriers began their day. We've spoken to some protestors and the way they describe it is these armored personnel carriers rolled in with some people looking very bedraggled, tired, hungry, and dirty and the protestors surrounded the vehicles and offered the men food and water and some nice conversation.

And the next thing you knew, these military vehicles were flying the Russian flag and rolling off to Slavyansk. A few different protestors all told us the same story. Where we are in Kramatorsk right now, there are about a dozen tanks. There are tired, bedraggled, hungry-looking men, but there are no Russian flags to be seen.

GREENE: Now, we presume - I know it's a confusing environment - but that this was part of the Ukrainian military action that you've been describing the last day or two coming in to try and retake parts of Eastern Ukraine. And according to the people you've spoken to, I mean the Russian protestors were able to take these armored vehicles away?

SHAPIRO: Some of them, not all of them. There is a large military presence still here in Kramatorsk. There is a military jet that buzzes low overhead, making a ton of noise and setting off car alarms every couple of minutes. There are plenty of tanks. There apparently was more action yesterday as Ukrainian military forces took back the air strip from these demonstrators.

Several people tell us that a couple people were wounded, a couple of the protestors were wounded in that operation. But we're told that nobody was killed.

GREENE: Well, Ari, the people you're speaking to, I mean if they were, you know, helping out and giving food to these Ukrainian military folks arriving, I mean, do they seem more loyal to Moscow, to Kiev, or to whom?

SHAPIRO: The people we're talking to today say they want this part of Ukraine to be independent. They don't trust the government in Kiev. They don't believe that the new government is legal. And they say they don't blame the tank drivers, they blame the people who sent in the tank drivers. But they're willing to surround these tanks and physically block their way to prevent them from coming into the city.

GREENE: Well, there's a report that's just come across, Ari, that Ukraine's defense minister is now traveling to Kramatorsk where you are, to, quote, clarify the situation and figure out what is happening with these armored personnel carriers that look like tanks, as you're describing them. I mean how much influence does this defense minister's government in Kiev have there in the eastern part of the country?

SHAPIRO: This area of Kramatorsk really does not like Kiev, really does not like the defense minister, and I doubt there will be anything he can say to the people here to persuade them. I think his message is intended for a broader audience to send the message that the government and the military are still in control of what's going on, and just because a few vehicles are flying the Russian flag does not mean that the separatists have won.

But it underscores the real problem that folks face here in the government, which is that though they accuse Russia of orchestrating this, there is widespread separatist sentiment among the locals here. And whether there are Russians organizing it or not, the locals emphatically agree with the point of view that's being expressed by these demonstrations.

GREENE: All right. NPR's Ari Shapiro joining us from the Eastern Ukrainian city of Kramatorsk. Ari, I'm sure we'll be hearing a lot more of your reporting later on. Thanks a lot.

SHAPIRO: Thanks. You too.

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