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Ukraine’s military appears to be stepping up its efforts to bring eastern and southern Ukraine back under government control.
Ukrainian troops today have been fighting gun battles with a pro-Russia militia occupying the eastern city of Slovyansk. The country’s interior ministry says four officers have been killed and 30 others wounded in those clashes.
A statement on the ministry’s website on Monday did not give further details about how those officers died. But a separate statement said Ukrainian troops had started an “anti-terrorist operation” Monday morning against the pro-Russia forces, which numbered around 800.
Slovyansk has been the heart of an uprising in east Ukraine against the central government in Kiev, which came to power after the country’s Russia-leaning president fled following months of street protests.
Meanwhile, the government has sent an elite national guard unit to re-establish control in the southern port city of Odessa
Pro-Russian activists there vowed to take city buildings after attending the funeral of a politician who died in a fire that killed over 40 people last week.
Former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Steven Pifer, discusses the situation in East Ukraine with Here & Now’s Meghna Chakrabarti.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:
From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Meghna Chakrabarti.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
I'm Robin Young. It's HERE AND NOW. And in a few minutes: what's going on in Florida politics. Why did the Republican-led legislature approve in-state college tuition for undocumented immigrants? That's catnip for so many in the Republican base.
CHAKRABARTI: But first, residents in the eastern Ukrainian city of Slavyansk say there was heavy gunfire today, with gun battles between Ukrainian government troops and the approximately 800 pro-Russia militants there. And there are also reports that Ukrainian troops have taken control of a TV tower in the city's suburbs, and that militants have shot down a military helicopter.
This comes two days after dozens were killed in the southern Ukrainian city of Odessa. Russia is warning that the escalating violence is now a threat to peace across Europe, while Ukraine's prime minister is accusing Russia of carrying out a plan to, quote, "destroy Ukraine and its statehood."
Steven Pifer, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and a senior analyst at the Brookings Institution, joins us from the studios at the Brookings Institution in Washington. Steven Pifer, welcome back to the program.
STEVEN PIFER: Thanks for having me.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, first of all, let's take a look at what's happening right now. Ukraine - the Ukrainian government is clearly carrying out what it said that it would do: military action against pro-Russian militants. Can it succeed in quelling this violence?
PIFER: Well, we'll have to see that. I think the Ukrainian government has found that it has faced a dilemma, where either it takes military action and risks killing some people and perhaps giving the Russians a pretext for a military incursion into eastern Ukraine, or they do nothing and run the risk that these continued armed seizures of buildings spread.
And I think last week, they concluded that they could not sit and do nothing. So you now have this military security operation, which is focused on Slavyansk. Whether they concede remains to be seen.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, let me ask you. We'll get to the Russia piece of this in a moment, but as far as we can see at this moment in time, many of these militants are pro-Russian Ukrainians, and now they are engaged in battle with the Ukrainian government. So is this a civil war now? Is this a civil conflict? What do we call what's happening there?
PIFER: Yeah. I still am a little bit cautious about using the term civil war, because that suggests large numbers of Ukrainians fighting other Ukrainians. And I still think what you have in eastern Ukraine is mainly security operations against relatively small armed groups, which I believe - although they consist in part of locals, there's no doubt about that, but I think that groups that were instigated and in some cases perhaps are being led by Russians.
CHAKRABARTI: So what do you think President Obama and the White House and the United States are thinking about the current state of the conflict because the U.S. has been advising the Ukrainian government and has previously praised Ukraine for its restraint when, you know, Russia intervened in Crimea. So is there a change in U.S. thinking as to what it should or could do now?
PIFER: Well, a couple things. I mean, first of all, I think the U.S. government seems to be understanding of the Ukrainian military security operations, again because the alternative would be for the government to sit back and then perhaps lost eastern Ukraine by default.
The second point, though - and we saw this when President Obama met on Friday with German Chancellor Merkel - is again this idea that unless Russia contributes to a solution, but if Russia for example tries to undermine the elections plan for May 25, that there would be further Western sanctions, economic sanctions on Russia.
CHAKRABARTI: Now, given what we quoted in the introduction to this piece, that Russia is saying - and again, that this is the Russian perspective, that this increased escalating violence in Ukraine could be destabilizing for Europe - does that give us a window into what Russia's intentions could be now?
PIFER: Well, it's worrisome. I mean, it's a little bit, quite frankly, hypocritical, because there's, I think, lots of anecdotal evidence that suggests that the Russians are precisely behind much of the destabilization that you see in eastern Ukraine. After Russia took Crimea, I don't think they considered that a win. Their main goal still is to keep Ukraine from drawing closer to the European Union. And in the last two months since they annexed Crimea, you've seen these steady efforts - economic, military pressure, massing of troops on Ukraine's border - to try to keep the government in Kiev on edge.
CHAKRABARTI: But, I mean, forgive me if this sounds a little bit repetitious, but I want to be able to sort of disentangle the web here that is Ukraine. I mean, is it fair to say - we have seen reports that indicate that it's not necessarily Russia that's calling the shots amongst these pro-Russian militants. I mean, does that sound like an accurate assessment to you?
PIFER: No, there's no question that there are lots of locals involved in these armed groups, but again, when you go back over the last three weeks and look at the organized way in which they were carried out, when you look at some of the pictures, which show the militants carrying very modern Russian army weapons, last week, one of the helicopters shot down by surface-to-air missile, that's something that you normally can't just pick up when you take over a police station. So I think there are lots of indications there.
And it takes place in - I think it's important to remember - eastern Ukraine. Certainly the population there is uncomfortable with the acting government in Kiev. They're not sure that their interests are being looked after. But polling also shows that they don't want to leave Ukraine, that they don't want the Russian army to come in, and that they disapprove and condemn the seizures of the buildings that have taken place.
CHAKRABARTI: And finally, in just a couple seconds, Ambassador Pifer, if you could, what do you hope would be the best possible outcome to this latest surge in violence?
PIFER: Well, the hope is that we can find a way to get the sides to de-escalate, that everybody sort of stands down, looks at a negotiation and such. But again, I don't have the sense that Russia sees that sort of de-escalation in its interest. Certainly, in the last two months, there was the negotiation in Geneva two-and-a-half weeks ago. That was an opportunity, but there was no effort made to follow up in terms of pushing those in eastern Ukraine who have taken the buildings to back down.
So, the sides have to, one, have a de-escalation right now, and at least one party - I think primarily on the Russian side - is not interested in that.
CHAKRABARTI: Steven Pifer is former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and currently a senior analyst at the Brookings Institution. Ambassador Pifer, thank you so much.
PIFER: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.