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Clashes continue in eastern Ukraine

May 31, 2014 at 4:39 PM EDT
Since the election last weekend, the Ukraine story seems to have slid off many of the front pages here in the U.S. At the border on the eastern part of the country, however, there have been continued clashes throughout the week between rebels and the Ukrainian government. Hari Sreenivasan speaks with Sabrina Tavernise, a journalist with the New York Times, about the situation on the ground.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: For more on Ukraine we are joined via Skype from Donetsk by Sabrina Tavernise of the New York Times.

So you’ve been in the border region between on the eastern side of the country. You know the Ukraine story has kind of slid off the front pages of the U.S. What’s the situation there now?

SABRINA TAVERNISE: So it’s very interesting, on the ground I think for a long time everybody was assuming that Putin was going to roll across the border. There was going to be another Crimea-style takeover. But instead really what we’re seeing on the ground instead is some very sort of subtle — essentially on-the-ground facts that speak very much to Russian involvement, but perhaps not Kremlin involvement. So there are a lot of sort of Russian freelancers. There are many fighters who have come from Russia but aren’t official Russian soldiers. But a lot of fighting going on here with sort of Russian flavor to it but not actually official. It’s very interesting.

HARI SREENIVASAN: NATO said there have been significant pull-backs from Russian forces off the border but you’re saying that there’s actually quite a few people who might be armed or might being supplied by Russia still in that region?

SABRINA TAVERNISE: Well, again it’s a very fine distinctions. So it’s not the Kremlin or Moscow, but it’s a lot of sort of people with Russian passports coming to Ukraine to fight. We were in the border region today of Luhansk and saw quite a bit of very strong rebel activity – essentially it’s its own country out there. It’s separate in a way from Ukraine and there many many — it’s a very long border with Russia – entirely controlled by rebel forces and there’s an assumption that a lot of what’s coming from Russia and coming through is coming through exactly that area. That that are is the rat line if you will.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So that region in Donetsk hardly had anybody voting. Quite a few people were intimidated, kept away from the polls. So do we essentially have a de facto divided Ukraine and how does the new president move forward with this?

SABRINA TAVERNISE: I think it’s very difficult. I think that basically in a way that Russia and Russians are trying to create facts on the ground by having a lot of these fighters come in. Some of them are mercenaries from the Caucasus, they’re all sort of a motley crew of people out here with Russian passports. I think essentially that gives President Putin quite a serious bargaining chip – and essentially a type of security deposit that allows him to keep Russian influence over Ukraine, gives him a good bargaining position over the new president, to keep kind of poking the situation – stirring the pot – if you will – keeping it unstable and keeping influence over its smaller, weaker neighbor.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Sabrina Tavernise of the New York Times, thanks so much.

SABRINA TAVERNISE: Thank you.