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Violence in western Ukraine signals intensifying civil conflict

May 3, 2014 at 5:53 PM EDT

HARI SREENIVASAN: Despite all the violence the past few weeks in eastern Ukraine, the greatest bloodshed actually occurred hundreds of miles away yesterday during that incident in Odessa. For more we’re joined now from Odessa via Skype by Philip Shishkin. He is with The Wall Street Journal. So what was the situation on the ground today?

PHILIP SHISHKIN: Well, outside that building where the people burned to death last night there was a Russian rally, and people were very angry at times. There were couples there. There were mostly pro-Russian, mostly older people, some younger people. They’re very angry at the police, too, because the police played a very peculiar role yesterday, as they have throughout the recent unrest in Ukraine. And their role is to basically not intervene.

What’s more there is video footage that emerged yesterday on several fairly reliable Ukrainian television channels and other videos that suggest that the police, that the local police, were actually sympathetic to the pro-Russian militants. And if not held them outright then at least did not stand in the way and maybe even sheltered them. And so this is what the Ukrainians are very angry about. The Russians are very angry about the fact that when the molotov cocktails flew at that building where the protestors were entrapped the police were nowhere to be seen, and they allowed this to happen. So there’s anger at the police aimed from both sides.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So for an American audience that’s watching what’s the significance that this violence is happening in Odessa, a western part of Ukraine, which isn’t close to Crimea, which isn’t close to the other areas that we’ve been talking about and hearing about in the last few days?

PHILIP SHISHKIN: You know, when you ask people here what ethnicity they are, what they identify with, they will say Odessan before they mention any ethnicity. Because it’s a major port city and has been for centuries. It has Russians, Ukrainians. It has always had a significance Jewish population.

And it’s always been this sort of cosmopolitan melting pot where people have lived, co-existed very peacefully with each other. So what we saw yesterday, and I don’t want to pre-judge some of how the events will unfold from here, but it had sort of (inaudible) of a civil conflict because it’s the first time in Ukrainian, in this latest spiral of separatist unrest that we have actually seen large numbers of civilians clashing with other civilians with massive deaths as a result.

And we can already see that both sides are trying to package what happened yesterday to their advantage.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Is there strategic importance, geographically? Is there psychological importance if Russia makes more claims to Odessa?

PHILIP SHISHKIN: It’s very a peculiar place where people do not exhibit pro-Russian sentiment to the extent that’s in Crimea or in parts of eastern Ukraine. And this is part of the reason why yesterday’s pro-Russian rally, why the shooting and the intimidation that the pro-Russians began met with such a forceful response. In Odessa, we see people pushing back and pushing back very hard and sometimes very violently, too.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right. Philip Shiskin of The Wall Street Journal, joining us from Odessa via Skype. Thanks so much.