SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Ukrainian authorities are struggling to put down pockets of unrest in the country's east. Armed gunmen seized a police station in the city of Slavyansk today. It is the latest of several cities where pro-Russian militants have taken over government buildings; some calling for independence, others to join Russia. Ukraine's interior minister promised a forceful response. He declared zero tolerance for what he called armed terrorists.

Our correspondent Ari Shapiro's been traveling around eastern Ukraine, where he's seen plenty of razor wire, sandbags and Molotov cocktails around the government buildings that are occupied by protesters. But he says there are no police officers in sight and here, he explains why.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: When protests in eastern Ukraine started on Sunday, police were everywhere.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)

SHAPIRO: This YouTube video from the city of Donetsk shows protesters banging on police riot shields. The forces protecting a government building stand shoulder-to-shoulder, dozens of them wearing full helmets with face protection. Eventually, the protesters broke through these police lines and took over government buildings in three eastern cities. Since then, law enforcement seems to have disappeared from the barricades. It's easy to find cops in the city and on the street, though none of them will grant interviews. They're just conspicuously absent from the protests. In the city of Luhansk, a protester named Boris Doronan has a theory.

BORIS DORONAN: (Through translator) The Luhansk police support the protest in their heart because their families live in this region, just like us. But they don't want to lose their jobs. That's why they act passively.

SHAPIRO: People on both sides of the debate agree that there is some truth to this. The ranks of the police are still full of people from the previous government. Many of them likely do sympathize with the demonstrators. Ihor Todorov is an international relations professor at Donetsk National University. He does not want to see Ukraine move closer to Russia.

IHOR TODOROV: (Foreign language spoken).

SHAPIRO: Sometimes, you get the impression that the work of the police is at best a sabotage and at worst a betrayal, he says. That reflects a widely held view of the police force here. According to a recent poll by a think tank called the Razumkov Centre, only 20 percent of Ukrainians trust the police. Ukrainian cops have a reputation for being deeply corrupt. And economist Alexei Ryabchin says Russian police officers have much better lives than Ukrainian ones.

ALEXEI RYABCHIN: They earn more. They have much more responsibilities. They have much more authority to act. And they consider maybe to join Russia, it may be a good idea.

SHAPIRO: Police here look at the protesters and they see neighbors, friends and relatives. When the government took back an occupied building in Kharkiv this week, the troops who performed the operation were special forces from another part of the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "ATTACK ON THE POLICE BUS IN KHARKIV, APRIL 08")

SHAPIRO: This YouTube video from Tuesday shows people in Kharkiv throwing rocks at a bus carrying riot police to the scene of the protests. Soon after, 70 demonstrators were arrested in what the government called an anti-terror operation. But there may also be very good reasons for the police to remain inconspicuous here. Economist Ryabchin says these demonstrations are a tinderbox and nobody wants them to explode, except maybe Russia.

RYABCHIN: Lots of pro-Russian activists and basically Russia television is waiting for - to see these casualties, to see these provocations maybe as the reason to put the troops here. So police are trying not to escalate the conflict.

SHAPIRO: This is also a very difficult time for cops on the frontlines. Over the winter, police officers opened fire on pro-European demonstrators in Kiev's Maidan. The leaders who gave those orders were booted from government and now face prosecution. And now the police who followed those orders are seen as villains. That has created what a governor here in eastern Ukraine calls post-Maidan syndrome. Police fear that the commanders who order them to shoot today may be out of power tomorrow.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Donetsk.

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