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Despite Ukraine peace talks, military tensions escalate

September 1, 2014 at 8:13 PM EST
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TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Talks aimed at restoring peace in Ukraine opened today, with Ukraine, Russia and Ukrainian rebels taking part.

The gathering in Belarus played out against the backdrop of battlefield gains by the rebels.

And as Matt Frei of Independent Television News reports, the parties on the ground seem to be bracing for more conflict, despite the new dialogue.

MATT FREI: The first day back at school in Ukraine, always a big deal, but especially here in the embattled east of the country, where defiance is measured in the size of bows, and where the war on their doorstep is dismissed like an unruly classmate.

MYKHAILO SUKHAREV: We can see that Donetsk is totally destroyed. And we, the children of Ukraine, we do not want to see our native town destroyed. We want to live in peace, and we want to say to all other children in world that we really want to have a peaceful life like you have.

MATT FREI: First day back at school here too. In recent years, the army had been an afterthought. But these fresh-faced recruits are likely to see action on the country’s new eastern front, in a war that at best is a civil conflict and at worst a regional one.

The assumption since the end of the Cold War, that conflict in Europe was well-nigh impossible, has evaporated in heat of a Ukrainian summer.

A tired-looking President Poroshenko today didn’t mince his words.

PRESIDENT PETRO POROSHENKO, Ukraine (through interpreter): Direct and open aggression has been launched against Ukraine from a neighboring state. This has changed the situation in the zone of conflict in a radical way and raises new and more difficult questions for our security forces. We are thoroughly analyzing the events of the last week. Conclusions will be serious.

MATT FREI: These are the pro-Russian rebels tooled up allegedly by Russia for another attempt to take back Donetsk Airport in the military ping-pong that has defined this limited, but increasingly vicious war.

The big question this week is whether Russia itself is now getting more openly involved, something which Moscow continues to deny, but which the rest of Europe and America increasingly believe.

The Ukrainians use this as evidence, on the horizon, a Ukrainian naval patrol boat and then an explosion. Was it Russian artillery, as Kiev claims, or an airstrike? We don’t know, but this is what it looked like up close and personal, the naval vessel ablaze, seven crew members injured, two missing.

The ghosts of European history are knocking on the door in what looks at times like a grim reenactment of Europe’s grimmest past. Here, Ukrainian prisoners of war were paraded in front of pro-Russian civilians, exposed to anti-Ukrainian anger. There are thought to be 700 prisoners of war now. And treatment like this is against the Geneva Convention.

We don’t know the number on the other side, but we do know that the civilian population in the pro-Russian areas is increasingly becoming prisoner to Ukrainian artillery. The cellars of Donetsk have become bomb shelters. A year ago, such scenes would have been dismissed as outlandish fantasy. Now they are becoming the new normal.