Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine may be the next flashpoint in the Russia-Ukraine standoff

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Marco Werman: The White House today delivered a stern warning to Russia. Vice President Joe Biden said the US will respond to any aggression against its NATO allies. Biden made that statement while visiting NATO member Lithuania. But frankly American warnings don't seem to be having much impact on Russian actions. Today, Russian troops continued to consolidate their control of newly-annexed Crimea by taking over Ukraine's main naval base there. And there's concern that Russia may be eying further intervention in eastern Ukraine - another region where pro-Russian sentiment has swelled. Reporter James Jones with our partner WGBH program "Frontline" is just back from the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. James Jones: The pro-Russia supporters, including, some I have to say, who had been bused over the border, from a town just over the border called Belgorod, attacked a government building which had been occupied by the pro-Kiev supporters and they dragged these guys out and beat them. And then that seemed like it was maybe just a one-off provocation and then I went back this weekend on Friday the Russian supporters had followed this minibus that has apparently been firing at them to the headquarters of this Ukrainian nationalist group who they see as the Nazis and the fascists who Putin is kind of stirring up all this fear about. And as the evening progressed, they started attacking this building and the nationalists started shooting at the Russia supporters and for the first time in all of this tension shots were fired and two Russian supporters were apparently killed and it really felt like this situation is escalating out of control. And for Putin this is perfect because if you kind of believe the kind of worst case scenario, that he wants to send Russian troops in, the fact that now these Russian supporters have been killed by these Ukrainian nationalists, that perfectly plays into his hands and he can say, "Look, I need to now take action and protect these Russian citizens. Werman: Are there any moderates left? Jones: The thing is it's really hard to tell because the minority - certainly on the Russian side - is so extreme and so vocal and so violent. And if you’re standing in the town square and you’re surrounded by five thousand of the Russian supporters, you think, "Wow, this city wants to be part of Russia." But actually, when you move away from the town center and you speak to people, a lot of them do actually support what happened in Kiev, even though I mean Yanukovych, the ousted president, came from that region. He's from Kharkiv. He's their guy, but most of them of them there see that he's a crook and they're happy that's he's gone. But the problem is if the extremists on both sides play along with this narrative and keep stirring up more tensions, then the moderates are drowned out and become kind of irrelevant. Werman: How did the Russian nationalists deal with the Ukrainian troops? Jones: There are these ten thousand Russian troops on the border with some pretty serious weaponry and they're doing nighttime drills and they released the footage. So certainly the military want to give the impression that they are ready to invade at a moment’s notice. And the Ukrainians are sending troops there. The Ukrainian military have kind of given up Crimea in the south, but they see the east as integral to their country. This would be of a completely different order if the Russians invade here, and they're sending tanks. But there was an incident a couple of days ago where the Russian supporters tried to block the Ukrainian tanks going to the border saying, "We don't want you to fight the Russians. We welcome the Russians. We need the Russians to save us from these fascists." So if the Ukrainian troops do build up it would be interesting to see how the population react. Werman: James, how were you treated there as an outsider? Jones: The atmosphere was pretty hostile to me I have to say. Where ever I went the Russian supporters would scream at me, "What channel are you from?" because this battle is being played out in the media as much as anywhere. So the Russian media will portray every event in a certain way and then the Ukrainian media in another and the western media in a completely different way. So they see me as the enemy. I mean I've never had so many threats to break me and my camera. These guys, a lot of them are thugs and they don't want me there because, as they said to me repeatedly, "What you'll do is you'll film it and you'll twist it and you'll make us out to seem like we are kind of rampaging thugs." Werman: I pointed out earlier that depending on who you are you might say "Kharkiv" or "Kharkov ", but it's fairly emblematic about the whole polarization. What difference does it make? Jones: Yeah, so the old Russian spelling and pronunciation of the town is "Kharkov". That changed when it became an Ukrainian town which is "Kharkiv". So depending on who you're talking to in the town, and you've got to be careful as a reporter there exactly how you say it depending on who you're speaking to, but that goes right to the heart of this kind of struggle. Most of the town is Russian-speaking I have to say, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they want to become part of Russia. Werman: Reporter James Jones with our partner program here, WGBH Frontline, who has just returned from the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. Thanks for your time, James. Jones: Thanks for having me.