Crisis Escalates In Eastern Ukraine

A group of international observers has been detained by pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine as Kiev ramps up military operations. NPR's Rachel Martin talks with NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. The crisis in eastern Ukraine is escalating after a group of foreign military observers accused of being spies were detained by pro-Russian separatists. At a press conference today, the detainees said they are in good health and have not been physically mistreated. At the same time, the government in Kiev has stepped up its military operations around separatist dominated towns.

President Obama says Russia's destabilizing actions in Ukraine must stop, and that the Kremlin hasn't lifted a finger to defuse the crisis. The U.S. and other members of the G-7 industrial nations now say they'll punish Russia for annexing Crimea and stirring up the separatists who have occupied government centers in about a dozen Ukrainian towns. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, and explains what the G-7 is planning to do.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Well, they're talking about imposing sanctions. But the big question is: Are they going to be imposing sanctions that are more sweeping, that affect the financial and energy sectors and would really pack a punch? And the answer to that seems to be no, at least at this point.

What is, in fact, going to happen in the coming days, possibly as early as Monday, is that the U.S. and Europe are going to add names to the list of Russian nationals and people within President Putin's inner circle as well as rich people to basically freeze their assets that are abroad, and also prevent them from traveling - like, basically issuing travel bans.

MARTIN: Meanwhile, the Ukrainian prime minister has complained that Russian jets repeatedly violated his country's airspace in recent days, which the Russian government denies. You traveled to the Ukrainian border with Russia yesterday. What did you see?

NELSON: Well, it's a very pastoral sort of environment. I mean, we're talking agricultural country; some trees, that sort of thing. And it's not - you don't see the kind of tensions that we see here in Donetsk, which is about an hour to the west of the area that we're talking about. There are, in fact, Ukrainian tanks there - or at least armored personnel carriers. They're sort of dug into the ground, have camouflage netting over them. They've also - the military has also dug trenches in order to prevent any kind of advance. And you have a lot of really frightened residents there.

MARTIN: What do Ukrainian residents in that border area have to say about being in the middle of this crisis - literally, caught between their military on one side and Russian troops on the other side?

NELSON: The area that we visited is dominated by Russian-speaking people who in fact feel a very close affinity, and have relatives and friends on the other side of the border, which is literally walking distance from their homes.

They're angry at the Ukrainian military for coming in. They're frightened about being in the middle of this fight that could potentially happen, since Russia is reserving the right to send troops across the border. One resident is Natasha, who is 28. She only give her first name because she's afraid that the Ukrainian military will punish her.

NATASHA: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: So Natasha says that three Ukrainian military helicopters swooped low over her village of Uliyanivske that morning. They had really frightened her son, and the 6-year-old boy asks her, is this war? And she says to him, no, they're just trying to scare us. And she and others there also complain that these Ukrainian military bulldozers and armored vehicles have destroyed their newly planted crops and the few roads that they have in that area.

MARTIN: NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reporting from Ukraine. Thank you so much for taking the time, Soraya.

NELSON: You're welcome, Rachel.

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