Violence Returns To Eastern Ukraine

A day after Ukraine's tumultuous elections, pro-Russian militants in the country's east took over part of an airport in Donetsk, prompting airstrikes by the government.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block. We begin this hour with the latest from Ukraine, where votes from yesterday's presidential election continue to be tallied. Billionaire candy-maker Petro Poroshenko maintains his commanding lead. International observers praised the election as genuine, despite the millions who couldn't vote due to violence in eastern providences.

The apparent president-elect has spoken of talks with Moscow to end that violence. But today, a battle broke out for control of the airport in the eastern city of Donetsk. NPR's Peter Kenyon is following events from Kiev. And, Peter, first, what can you tell us about that airport battle?

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Well, this morning, Melissa, a group of armed rebels went into the Donetsk airport terminal building. They forced its closure. I suppose, by the rebels' logic, since they live in the People's Republic of Donetsk, the airport was controlled by a foreign military, which they couldn't abide. The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense then responded by ordering fighter jets and helicopter gunships to respond. And they sent in paratroopers, as well, on what they called a clean-up operation.

So I guess if you are looking for a snapshot of the state of Ukraine today, it could have well have been a sight of Petro Poroshenko, the next head of state according to the vote count, accepting congratulations here in Kiev, while aircraft are raking the relatively new Donetsk airport terminal with automatic weapons fire.

BLOCK: Well, assuming the election results hold and Poroshenko is declared the winner, when would he take office as president?

KENYON: He wants to do it as soon as possible. No date has been announced, but at the moment - barring legal complications - I'm told swearing in could happen by mid-June, maybe even a little earlier.

BLOCK: And does he have a plan to calm the situation down in the eastern provinces?

KENYON: Well, that's certainly at the top of his to-do list. Poroshenko says he wants a hold talks with Russian officials next month, presumably soon after his inauguration. And the initial response from Moscow's been positive, saying Russia is open to dialogue with Ukraine's leader.

Now, it's highly unlikely one set of talks could resolve these various kinks in the Russia-Ukraine relationship. Mr. Poroshenko still claims Ukrainian sovereignty for Crimea, for example. But at the top of the list has to be this effort to bring calm to eastern Ukraine, which probably cannot be done without Russia's support.

BLOCK: Does Poroshenko have the standing to exert influence on Moscow in this? Russia has taken over Crimea in Ukraine. It's been stoking pro-Russian sentiments in other parts of the East. What can he do?

KENYON: Well, he certainly cannot do much by himself, because, as you suggest, Ukraine simply doesn't have a lot of leverage here. Russia's much larger, wealthier, better armed. Ukraine will need help from its allies, America and Europe. They've taken some steps against Moscow. But there's been hesitation, especially on the part of Europe, to target those closest to President Vladimir Putin or to enact sanctions really painful enough to risk drawing major retaliation from Moscow.

BLOCK: Well, besides dealing with Moscow and trying to figure out some way out of the unrest in the East, what else is on the agenda for the apparent President-elect, Poroshenko?

KENYON: Well, based on his public statements so far, it's quite a list, with both short- and long-term projects. He wants to move quickly to bring Ukraine into the European economic orbit, which, of course, won't help his talks with Moscow. But improving the investment climate, he says, is an urgent priority. He also wants to tackle corruption, although some suspect he may focus on the looting done by the former president, Viktor Yanukovych, and his allies at first. And by all accounts, that will keep prosecutors busy for quite some time. Poroshenko also is promising judicial reform, which isn't heard much outside of here, but, within Ukraine, it's a very big priority.

Many people have given me stories of justice going only to the highest bidder. And then in the longer term, there's the question of security guarantees. Back in the '90s, Kiev signed on with the U.S., Britain and Russia to guarantee its safety and that, of course, didn't work out so well. So now he needs new guarantors, and I think the details of that might be quite tricky to work out.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's Peter Kenyon in Kiev, Ukraine. Peter, thanks so much.

KENYON: You're welcome, Melissa.

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