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From the front lines: Ukraine army in ‘very difficult state’

August 31, 2014 at 5:56 PM EDT

HARI SREENIVASAN: For the latest we are joined via Skype from Mariupol, Ukraine, by James Marson of The Wall Street Journal. Let’s start talking about that prisoner exchange… is this a signal that tensions are easing?

JAMES MARSON: Well, it’s certainly a sign that the Ukrainian army is on the back foot. They had been on the front foot for several weeks. But what the Ukrainian officials and soldiers on the ground are saying is there’s been a huge influx of Russian fighters, of Russian heavy weapons, and even of Russian regular troops which has really turned the tide.
And suddenly where Ukraine had been advancing, they are now retreating. A lot of soldiers have got trapped. A lot of soldiers have become prisoners. And several dozens and dozens of Ukrainian soldiers have been killed.

HARI SREENIVASAN: There was a Russian spokesman who said that eastern Ukraine should remain a part of Ukraine. How does a comment like that play in this climate?

JAMES MARSON: Well, I believe you’re referring to the President’s spokesman, because President Vladimir Putin said that Kiev should begin talks on the potential statehood of some of this region, which he refers to as Novorossiya, New Russia. Now there are many interpretations you can make of that, but that seems to indicate that he is in favor of this part of the country becoming an independent state not part of Ukraine. And then this comment by this spokesman appear to say the opposite, so it’s not really clear what’s going on here.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, you were on the front lines reporting yesterday. What did you see versus with what the Kremlin was saying?

JAMES MARSON: Well, it seems to be the Ukrainian army is in a very difficult state now. I was in one town very close to the frontlines, a town called Komsomolsk. And residents were telling me that through the entire day soldiers, Ukrainian soldiers, had been limping back from behind the front lines because a lot of Ukrainian soldiers had got trapped by this rebel new advance. And some of them had been trying to make it back through fields and forest. And they said that these soldiers were in a terrible state. Very bloody, lots of injured people. And they were simply trying to make it out on foot.

As we were leaving, we saw a convoy of about 10 ambulances stuffed full of injured Ukrainian soldiers who looked in a terrible state. Now they still have significant forces in other parts, to the North and the West, but they seem to be moving very slowly to back up the units that have been pushed backward.

HARI SREENIVASAN: You also spoke with Ukrainians who were losing some faith in help from the West. What are they interested in?

JAMES MARSON: Well, they’ve said that they have made their European choice as a country. There were protests several months ago that overthrew a pro-Russian president who was corrupt and unpopular. They say we’ve made our European choice. We’ve made our western choice. But where is the support now from the West, from Europe, from the United States? They say they need weapons that will enable them to push back what they say is an advance by Russian regular troops against tanks, against artillery, against very powerful weapons. As some fighters here have said to me, we have enthusiasm and we have rifles, but they don’t help you very much against tanks.

HARI SREENIVASAN: James Marson of The Wall Street Journal, joining us via Skype from Mariupol, thanks so much.

JAMES MARSON: A pleasure.