Fighting In Eastern Ukraine Appears To Be Heating Up Again
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The fighting in eastern Ukraine appears to be heating up once again, so much so that Ukrainian officials say they fear separatists and their Russian allies might be preparing for another offensive in the coming weeks. On the top of this, Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, has signed a new measure saying that Russian military casualties during peacetime will now be considered a state secret. We're going to learn more about all of this from NPR's Corey Flintoff, who joins us on line from Moscow. Good morning, Corey.
COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Good morning, David.
GREENE: So we've been hearing for months now that this cease-fire in eastern Ukraine never totally took hold, but what's changing now with this increased fighting? What's going on?
FLINTOFF: The cease-fire is monitored by teams of inspectors from the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe, the OSCE, and their job is to observe the frontline areas between the two sides - and on both sides - and report any cease-fire violations. Their latest reports say the shelling has been so heavy in some of these areas that they can't even safely get close enough to see what's going on or who's doing what. That includes an area outside the port city of Mariupol, and the objective there for the separatists could be to advance all the way across southern Ukraine to Crimea. Another part of the observer's job is to make sure that heavy weapons, you know, things like tanks and rocket launchers, are being stored at a safe distance away from the front so they can't be used. That was part of the agreement that started this cease-fire in the first place. These weapons are supposed to be stored in depots; but lately, the observers say that many of them are missing, which probably means they've been returned to the front.
GREENE: Well, and the Ukrainian - the government is basically saying that this is a prelude to a big Russian-backed offensive that's coming in the near future. I mean, do they have intelligence to suggest that, or why are they saying that?
FLINTOFF: They do. Both the Ukrainians and NATO say there's been another buildup of Russian troops and heavy weapons on the Russian side of the border, and a lot of that intelligence, of course, is based on satellite observations. When the Russians have done this in the past, it's almost always been followed by a renewed offensive in eastern Ukraine.
GREENE: Well, Corey, explain President Putin's decision, which comes at the same time as all of this. He signs this law saying that Russian military casualties - peacetime, wartime - are going to always be a secret. What is the implication of that?
FLINTOFF: Well, Putin's always denied that Russian soldiers have been fighting in Ukraine, and that claim, of course, has been undermined by the fact that Russian soldiers are apparently being killed in combat. A recent report by Russian opposition activists says that at least 220 confirmed Russian servicemen have died over the past year, and that number is actually thought to be much higher than that. So opposition members are saying this latest change to the law is a way of hiding casualties from the Russian public. The implications aren't completely clear at the moment, but it looks as if journalists could be charged with treason or leaking state secrets if they report on the deaths of Russian servicemen. You know, let's say you're in a small city in Russia and there's a funeral from one of your boys who died while he was on active duty in the military, it could actually be treason to report on his funeral. It would apparently be against the law even for his family members to talk about it.
GREENE: NPR's Moscow correspondent Corey Flintoff. Corey, thanks as always.
FLINTOFF: My pleasure, David.
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