Ukraine's Acting President: We've Lost Control Of East

Pro-Russian separatists have seized government buildings in another eastern Ukrainian city. After Luhansk fell, Ukraine's acting president said his troops were helpless in the face of the unrest. He said he now was working to keep the rest of eastern Ukraine under his government's control.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. Ukraine's interim president says his military forces have lost control of the eastern part of the country. That declaration today came after masked separatists captured government offices in a key provincial capital. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is in the city of Donetsk in the east where separatists also wield control.

And Soraya, that sounds like quite a dramatic declaration from the Ukrainian president. What did he say?

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Yeah, he was speaking to regional governors. This is President Alexander Turchinov and he says that Ukrainian troops are helpless because protesters are cooperating with, quote, "terrorist groups." He doesn't really say what he means by terrorist groups and Russia is denying that it's working with these protesters. But what is pretty clear is that local authorities are not stopping the separatists from taking over these government buildings. And we journalists certainly see the police talking to them regularly.

The president also says that the main goal now is to make sure Ukraine's second largest city Kharkiv, which is to the north of Luhansk and Donetsk where I am, and the key port of Odessa, which is to the south and west somewhat, they want to make sure that those do not fall into separatist hands.

BLOCK: So this declaration from President Turchinov comes with a looming backup of thousands of Russian troops who are gathered just over the border in Russia. What did the president say about that?

NELSON: He says that Ukrainian forces are on, quote, "full combat alert" in anticipation that Russia will invade. The fact that Russian officials have repeatedly said they had no intention of doing so doesn't seem to have an effect and that might be because President Vladimir Putin, several weeks ago, said that he reserved the right to send troops across the border if it becomes necessary.

BLOCK: And the latest seizures of government buildings by pro-Russian protesters, what's the goal there? What are they trying to do?

NELSON: Well, both here in Donetsk and in the north in Luhansk, they talk about wanting to have a referendum. The single question that they plan to put on the ballot here in Donetsk, for example, is whether this place should be an independent republic. We're hearing the same thing from separatists in Luhansk.

And what they don't talk about is whether or not this means if they, let's say, were to get that, if people said yes, that they would seek annexation to Russia, which is, of course, what happened in Crimea. But at this point, they are planning for that referendum on May 11. If you go past checkpoints, people are handing out flyers, encouraging people to vote. But there don't appear to be any other preparations underway.

BLOCK: And would that referendum have mass popular backing in that part of Ukraine? I mean, do most people there want to secede from their country?

NELSON: Well, I think the short answer is no, at least according to a recent poll and certainly the widely held belief of analysts and officials that I've talked to here. But what people do want to do is maintain close trade ties to Russia because the economy here really heavily depends on it. And the people here say that they're really afraid that this new Cold War that seems to be going on between the U.S. and Russia or between the EU and Russia, is going to kill that trade.

BLOCK: In the meantime, Soraya, there are international observers, a dozen people who were in Ukraine trying to calm the situation. They're being held by pro-Russian separatists. What's the latest on their status?

NELSON: Well, the organization for security and cooperation in Europe, the mission here to Ukraine for that organization, they are doing what they can to try and get these hostages released. Their spokesman is Michael Bociurkiw.

MICHAEL BOCIURKIW: They do have talks every day with the people holding these hostages and importantly, too, is that they have been able to see the hostages pretty much every day and that's important not only for us, of course, but for the hostages in terms of having contact with the outside world.

NELSON: But Bociurkiw says that the captivity is wearing on the Europeans and he says that the OSCE teams haven't been able to get in touch with Ukrainian service members who were with the German-led team when it was captured.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, she's in Donetsk, Ukraine. Soraya, thanks so much.

NELSON: You're welcome, Melissa.

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