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Russian Separatists Open New Front In Eastern Ukraine


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Witnesses on the border between Russia and Ukraine report another sign of trouble. They say a column of armored vehicles moved into Ukraine and whoever was on those vehicles fought with Ukrainian troops. That is the backdrop for a face-to-face meeting today between the presidents of Russia and Ukraine in attempt to resolve the differences between those two countries. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is covering the story from territory that is held by Ukrainian separatist. She is in the city of Donetsk. Hi, Soraya.


INSKEEP: So a lot to discuss here. Let's begin with these talks between the presidents of Russia and Ukraine. What are they going to talk about really?

NELSON: Well, this is the second meeting between the two leaders and it's taking place in Minsk which is the capital of Belarus. But in Moscow yesterday the foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, warned people not to expect too much from these talks. He says that Vladimir Putin will demand follow through on a past agreed to plans, for example, an unconditional cease-fire. Of course you may recall that previous cease-fires were violated by the pro-Russian separatists.

Putin is also calling for a Ukraine-wide national dialogue so that pro-Russian people who live here in Ukraine don't feel disenfranchised. And then on the other hand, we have Petro Poroshenko, the Ukrainian president, who's going to be demanding to know why Russia keeps illegally entering its territory last week with this controversial humanitarian convoy and yesterday with what the Ukrainian says was a Russian armored infantry column.

INSKEEP: OK, can you give us more details about that column and whatever fighting it did?

NELSON: Well, there were at least 10 tanks and two other armored vehicles according to witnesses. They were burying the insignia of the pro-Russian separatist, but they were said to have come from Russia and included Russian troops. The Ukrainian military says it destroyed two tanks and captured 10 Russian soldiers. Russia says this is all just another fabrication and dozens of other armored infantry vehicles that came in with this convoy where they went is also unclear. But there's a lot of concern about where this infantry column was doing its fighting yesterday. And that's south of Donetsk, not far from the port city of Mariupol. And if that city were to fall that would open up a supply line from Russia to Donetsk and that's something that Ukrainians certainly want to avoid because they've been trying to cut off Donetsk and the rebel fighters here from any sort of resupplying.

INSKEEP: OK, so whoever was doing the fighting - it was being done in a strategic location you're saying. You are, let's remind people, in the city of Donetsk. This is a major city in Eastern Ukraine that has been largely controlled by separatists. What's it like to move around there?

NELSON: Well, it's still very much a ghost town, even more so than when I was here a week ago. The shelling has gotten a lot closer. Most people who are still in the city are spending the night in shelters, but more than a third of the town's million residents have fled. It's a very difficult place to move around in the sense that the streets are filled with these rebel fighters, and some of them have taken to intimidating residents.

The New York Times had a very disturbing report this morning about one woman who was accused of being a Ukrainian spy who was wrapped in a Ukrainian flag and basically set up at a checkpoint where she was physically and verbally abused by passersby and by the people who were holding her.

INSKEEP: Is that the kind of thing that you're witnessing as you move about - a citizenry that seems intimidated?

NELSON: Certainly it's a citizenry that you can't see anywhere. There are very few people who are on the streets even at what are supposed be busy times of the day. And people that I've spoken with - they express a lot of fear. They don't like what they are seeing with these armed rebels who've taken to carjacking, who are forcibly recruiting young men to their ranks to fight with Ukrainian forces. So it deftly is an atmosphere of intimidation that seems to be growing.

INSKEEP: Soraya, thanks very much.

NELSON: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson in Donetsk, Ukraine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.