Caught In Cross-Fire, Civilians In Eastern Ukraine Suffer

Russian trucks are carrying aid for those caught in a battle between Ukraine's army and pro-Russia separatists. Steve Inskeep talks to Michael Birnbaum, Moscow bureau chief for The Washington Post.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's talk about another humanitarian crisis. Hundreds of Russian trucks are now moving toward the border with eastern Ukraine carrying aid. Russia says it wants to help civilians caught in a war, a war that is widely seen as being of Russia's own making. We're going to talk this through with Michael Birnbaum. He's a reporter for The Washington Post. He's in the Ukrainian capital Kiev. Welcome to the program.

MICHAEL BIRNBAUM: Thanks very much for having me.

INSKEEP: So Russia's moving aid in - sounds good on the surface. Are they coordinating with the Ukrainian government as they do this?

BIRNBAUM: Well, they seem to be coordinating with the Ukrainian government after they make their own decisions. In the last couple of days, we've seen them take action and then the Ukrainian government and the Red Cross, which is supposed to receive the aid, scramble to catch up.

INSKEEP: Is this aid a way for Russia to increase its influence in eastern Ukraine?

BIRNBAUM: Well, that certainly seems to be one aim of the aid. They say that they are concerned about the humanitarian crisis there. They say they want help, so they've sent this aid down the road from Moscow. But it's certainly, at minimum, a public relations, positive move for Moscow in the East.

INSKEEP: And the Ukrainian government is saying what?

BIRNBAUM: The Ukrainian government is very concerned. They say that they do indeed want an international aid mission in the east of Ukraine. They say that Russia is welcome to take part. But they've been concerned that aid coming from Russia is something masquerading as, you know, possible aid to the rebels. And they want to make sure that that doesn't happen. So there's a dispute about how the aid is going to come in and who's going to handle it.

INSKEEP: OK, so let's back away from the politics and talk about the actual civilians here for a moment. You mentioned rebels. There are separatists who've been fighting against the Ukrainian military, Russian-backed separatists. How many civilians are caught in the crossfire, and what are conditions like as best you can tell?

BIRNBAUM: Well, this is a fairly dense region in eastern Ukraine. The fighting is quite intense right now. It has been for months, but it's getting more and more intense as the Ukrainian military pushes in on rebel strongholds, including the sort of rebel capital of Donetsk, which is now surrounded by the Ukrainian military. And there are lots of civilians left. Many have fled either to Russia or to other parts of Ukraine. But in the city of Donetsk, which before this crisis was about 950,000 people, estimates, which are a little shaky, are that there are now about 650,000 remaining.

INSKEEP: Are the normal routes of commerce and trade cut off by the fighting?

BIRNBAUM: They certainly are. There is a tremendous amount of back-and-forth shelling. And until relatively recently in the conflict, there was some semblance of ordinary life in Donetsk. People would go to work. They'd try to go about their business as best they could, even though rebels were in their midst. That has largely stopped because the fighting has gotten so intense. And so grocery stores have emptied out. In Lugansk, city authorities said yesterday that the city had been without electricity or water for the last 10 days. So things really have come to a standstill. And people are mostly hunkered down in their basements.

INSKEEP: Michael Birnbaum is the Moscow bureau chief for The Washington Post. He's currently in the Ukrainian capital Kiev. Thanks very much.

BIRNBAUM: Thank you.

INSKEEP: And we'll continue tracking that Russian aid right here on MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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