With Plane Crash, Conflict In Ukraine Back In World Spotlight

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Secretary of State John Kerry says evidence is mounting that Russian-backed separatists downed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. New Republic editor Julia Ioffe discusses the tensions with NPR's Kelly McEvers.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Now to the situation in Ukraine. Secretary of State John Kerry says evidence is mounting that Russian backed separatists are to blame for downing a Malaysia Airlines plane over Eastern Ukraine. Here's Kerry talking on CNN about the weapon system that the U.S. believes brought down that plane.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: We know for certain that the separatists have a proficiency that they've gained by training from Russians, as to how to use these sophisticated SA-11 systems. We know they have the system and on Thursday of the event, we know that within hours of this event, this particular system passed through two towns right in the vicinity of the shoot-down.

MCEVERS: To talk more about this we spoke to Julia Ioffe, a senior editor at the New Republic. Julia Ioffe welcome to the show.

JULIA IOFFE: Thanks for having me Kelly.

MCEVERS: So, this week after the plane was shot down, you wrote that this would be a major game changer in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. You wrote, make no mistake this is a really, really, really big deal. Have we seen that reaction that you were expecting? Or is that still in the works?

IOFFE: We're definitely seeing it. This was a conflict that had faded from the front pages. And all of the sudden it had brought in people from countries all over the world. You're having people at the highest level of governments in both European countries and the U.S. speaking out forcefully against Putin in a way they haven't in months.

MCEVERS: And Julia, the Ukrainians released what they say is an intercepted phone call after the attack. It's supposedly a rebel calling back to his, you know, sort of handler in Russia. The Ukrainian say the man talking is a man named, Igor Bezler, basically admitting that his men shot down the plane. You actually met this guy, Bezler, when you were reporting in Ukraine. Can you tell me about him?

IOFFE: So, it was totally by accident that we met him. I was there with the photographer and we were told that if we wanted to operate in this town of, Gorlovka, where Bezler was in charge at the time, that we had to go and see the, kind of, city bosses inside a captured police station. All of a sudden this guy shows up and we realize it was Bezler, who is known as, Bies, this which is, you know, like the first syllable of his name and it also means demon. And he was just, you know, on one hand he was very nice to us, he offered us tea and then he proceeded to go into diatribe about how evil and barbaric the Ukrainian Army is. How they don't bury their dead, how they stripped the bodies down for valuables and just leave them in the fields. Which is kind of ironic given the reports we're hearing from the crash site, where rebels are being said to be pillaging the crash site and even going as far as using some of the victim's credit cards.

MCEVERS: You've written also that Russian President Vladimir Putin does not like to be backed into a corner. It seems that he is in the corner now. What do you think his thinking is right now? How is he going to go forward?

IOFFE: He's probably troubleshooting. For all the praise he gets in Washington as being brilliant and out foxing and outmaneuvering the U.S. at every step, he's not very good at thinking far ahead. He's a good tactician but not a very good strategist. And we're seeing that here, I don't think he ever intended to shoot down an international civilian jetliner. In situations like this, when there's intense, intense public pressure and outcry mounting against him he tends to withdraw and not say much publicly. He doesn't like to be seen as responding to pressure. He likes to seem completely autonomous.

MCEVERS: That's Julia Ioffe. She's a senior editor at the New Republic. Julia thank you so much.

IOFFE: Thank you Kelly.

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