AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Fighting between the Ukrainian army and Russian-backed separatists has spiked again in the eastern city of Donetsk. Pro-Russian rebel fighters have seized control of the main terminal of the city's airport. And both sides are blaming each other for shelling a trolley bus that killed at least eight civilians in downtown Donetsk this morning. More than 4,800 people have been killed since the outbreak of fighting between Russian-backed separatists and the Ukrainian Army last spring. Another 1.2 million Ukrainians have been displaced. Joining us from Kiev, Ukraine, is journalist David Stern. He works for the BBC as their Kiev correspondent. Welcome to the program.
DAVID STERN: Hello.
CORNISH: Now, the airport was already badly damaged, right, from months of fighting. What's the symbolic value of an attack on it?
STERN: Well, the airport has been the center of a bitter struggle for months now. So the emotion and the symbolism comes from the time and blood that's been invested in it. The Ukrainian forces have held it pretty much since the end of May. But now it's fallen. And it probably will cause a reaction in the country because it was seen to be very much sort of the Ukrainian Stalingrad. They are holding out against all odds.
CORNISH: So is this idea of the cease-fire basically alive in name only?
STERN: Yes, and that's basically been the situation since the beginning of the cease-fire. It never really took hold. I'd say it was more of a de-escalation. Now it's reaching the levels that we saw over the summer. And there's a fear that it's going to become even worse and possibly even spread.
CORNISH: Can you give us some context in terms of how much of Ukraine is now controlled by pro-Russian rebels?
STERN: Well, it's not that significant in terms of land, I guess you could say. The two regions are Lugansk and Donetsk, and they're very significant for the economy. They're the center - if not the center, one of the main areas for heavy industry - so their loss - besides the human cost - has caused the country greatly in terms of lost revenues.
CORNISH: When fighting first broke out last spring, the Ukrainian army was totally unprepared, very much in disarray. What's the state of the army now?
STERN: Well, much better. They've done a remarkable job of creating one in a matter of months. But it's a formidable enemy. If it's the separatists - the separatists have - are very well equipped with the latest in heavy weaponry. There are all indications that there are at least some Russian troops among them, whether they're on their leave or they've been sent over the border, as Western officials say. So they are not quite up to speed to be able to take on this power. But they are holding their own.
CORNISH: Finally, what has been heard from Russian President Vladimir Putin? Obviously, Russia has been under sanctions because of its involvement in Ukraine. I don't know if there's any more speculation on what his long-term goal might be there.
STERN: Well, that's the $64,000 question. Ultimately, all of this hinges on what Russia wants and what its ultimate goal is. A great deal of your analysis depends on what one views as what the purpose of this whole thing is. If it's just to stir up trouble in Ukraine, maybe there could be some sort of compromise reached. If it's ultimately to destroy the Ukrainian state, that's another thing. If it's to project Russian power further abroad, then that's another thing, so we don't really know. The one thing that you can say is that it really looks as if this war is going to go on for quite some time.
CORNISH: Journalist David Stern, working with the BBC. He spoke to us from Kiev, Ukraine. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
STERN: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.