Fighting In Eastern Ukraine Is Described As Fierce But Indecisive

Diplomats are trying to arrange a new ceasefire in eastern Ukraine. But Ukraine's president is under domestic pressure to take decisive military action against pro-Russian separatists.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

There is more fighting in eastern Ukraine after that country's new president called off a cease-fire with pro-Russian rebels on Monday. World leaders are continuing to press for Ukraine to negotiate with the rebels and to find a more permanent solution to the conflict there. NPR's Corey Flintoff joins us to update us on the situation in Ukraine. Corey, good morning.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: So give us an idea of what the military situation is at this point. I mean, we've heard that the Ukrainian army is trying to seal off the border with Russia, which seems important to keep rebels from bringing in more fighters and more weapons. Are they finding any success?

FLINTOFF: You know, it's really difficult to tell, David. The Ukrainian military says, it has recaptured a couple of these border posts from the rebels, but that's a long way from regaining control of the border. I was just up on the Russian border in Luhansk province a couple of weeks ago, and most of that area is just basically farmers, fields and woods. You can't see the border except at the post.

So it looks like it would be easy to bring in supplies and even vehicles across it almost anywhere. And that's crucial because the Ukraine and the NATO alliance members are accusing Russia of providing support for the rebels, including heavy weaponry that - things like tanks and rocket launching systems. And all those have to come across that border.

GREENE: Corey, for a while now, analysts have been saying that this - the solution here is going to be diplomatic. I mean, there's - this is not a conflict that's going to be won militarily. It's going to involve negotiations with Russia, perhaps with other world leaders being involved. And yet, Ukraine's president, Petro Poroshenko, decides not to extend the cease-fire. Tell us why he made that decision?

FLINTOFF: Well, the Ukrainian military says, they were losing soldiers, and they were losing ground during the cease-fire because the rebels weren't observing it. They were basically able to attack wherever and whenever they chose. And the Ukranians were only able to react. They couldn't take the initiative.

But there was a lot more clearly going on there because a couple of days ago, Poroshenko replaced his top military leaders, including the minister of defense and the chief of staff -the very highest officials. And he gave this very angry speech to parliament in which he blamed some of the military's problems on corruption. He said, corruption in the military made it impossible to get basic supplies to his soldiers in the field.

But it also has to be said that right now it would be political suicide for any politician or official in Ukraine to say that this can't be solved militarily. The new defense minister even got a standing ovation in parliament yesterday when he promised that Ukraine would recapture Crimea from Russia. That actually seems to be quite a stretch of the imagination at the moment. So, you know, if Poroshenko wants to win this thing militarily, it seems that he's going to have to do it while he's reforming his own defense establishment.

GREENE: Is there movement on the diplomatic front? I know President Obama spoke with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. There's been a lot of consultation. Any results?

FLINTOFF: You know, the White House read-outs of these conversations are starting to sound an awful lot alike. This time, the White House says Obama and Merkel agreed that the U.S. and Europe should ratchet up the cost for Russia if Russia doesn't stop supporting the rebels. That would mean further sanctions.

And in fact, the Europeans have said they're preparing a series of next steps that could hit Russia's economy, but they're not saying what those steps would be. One idea that could really bite Russia would be to cut off lending from the EU's bank - the European investment bank - which is a big source of foreign lending for Russia. But that would require a lot of consensus on the part of the EU members.

GREENE: So all this talk of diplomatic moves, pressure on Russia - let's just make clear - are there any negotiations right now between Ukraine's government and the rebels?

FLINTOFF: Well, you know, the foreign ministers of Germany and France and Russia and Ukraine have been meeting. And they actually set a deadline of tomorrow for a new round of consultations. There'd be an ex-Ukrainian president talking with the rebels. That gives Poroshenko a bit of cover, so he can say, he's not negotiating directly with the separatists.

And it's worth noting that this whole negotiating process is forcing the Ukrainian government to give some kind of recognition to the rebels. That's something they really don't want to do because it would be an acknowledgment that the rebels might have some kind of political legitimacy as representatives of the Russian-speaking areas.

GREENE: All right. NPR's Corey Flintoff updating us on the situation in Ukraine from his base in Moscow. Corey, thanks a lot.

FLINTOFF: Thank you, David. My pleasure.

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