As tension rises in eastern Ukraine, Russian nationalism rises in Moscow

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Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: By the way, the White House says it's very concerned about Russia's provocative actions in this crisis. Those comments coming as more details emerge about an incident over the weekend when a Russian military jet repeatedly buzzed an US Navy ship in the Black Sea. So that volatility we just heard about - not confined to eastern Ukraine. To hear how things look like from Russia we reach New York Times reporter David Herszenhorn in Moscow.

David Herszenhorn: The interesting thing is that we have this ongoing unrest throughout eastern Ukraine. These are pro-Russian demonstrators who are demanding protection. They would like to see Russian troops come in and keep the peace. But it’s important to remember that there was no threat to peace before these violent demonstrations started. So they're effectively asking either for President Putin and Russian forces to protect them from themselves, or to protect them from some sort of imaginary threat from Kiev that we just haven't seen yet, this idea that from western Ukraine they would see fascist invaders of some sort coming to oppress Russian speakers in the east. President Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said he's receiving numerous requests for assistance from eastern Ukraine, that the president is watching these developments with great concern. I think everyone in the world has concern over unrest in eastern Ukraine. The big question is at what point, if ever, does Russia go in with military force?

Werman: What does that mean exactly, "great concern in Moscow"? Does that make intervention more likely?

Herszenhorn: It seems to just perpetuate the status quo. There are very important negotiations coming up in Geneva on Thursday, four-way talks. This would be the first time that would put the new Ukrainian government, Russia, the United States, and the European Union at the same table. What is different is that the central Ukrainian government in Kiev has threatened to begin an anti-terrorist operation to bring in the military. It's not clear that they have those capabilities. They've threatened that. If they do make that kind of a move it could provide the pretext that Russia seems to be looking for to send in its own troops across the border to protect the people that it says have a right to be demonstrating and seizing these buildings in opposition to the government in Kiev.

Werman: David, you've written about a xenophobic chill descending on Moscow. What is the mood there right now? I mean do Russians have the stomach for another intervention somewhere?

Herszenhorn: Well, Russians are generally quite supportive of the annexation of Crimea. That part of it, there's no question, has a lot of public support. I spent quite a lot of time in Ukraine and Crimea. I was out of Moscow for quite some time and came back to find a very different city. This is a city that is much more attuned now to the ongoing conflict between Russia and the west. We've seen Russian flags in places where they hadn't been before. But even more interesting and unsettling have been the effort to focus in on so-called "traitors" within Russia itself. This banner was unfurled in front of Dom Knigi, one of the largest bookstores in Moscow, showing five well-known political opposition figures and two space aliens, basically referring to the "traitors among us". There's now a website where patriotic Russians can suggest a traitor to be added to the site to be photographed there and described why they are undermining Russia's interests. This in addition to heightened anti-Western and anti-American sentiment which I think everybody feels throughout this city.

Werman: What's it like being an American journalist in Moscow right now?

Herszenhorn: Well, we continue to work as we always have, but you do get the sense that when you're speaking English around town people do notice it a bit more. There's no question that the effort to suppress speech and control the press has been underway for quite some time. There has been some acceleration of that in recent days, this ongoing effort to really bring a chill on opposition speech, stir Russian nationalism and Russian pride. It's a dangerous game of course, because Russia in fact is quite a pluralistic country, many different ethnicities and languages spoken throughout the Russian Federation, so it's a dangerous game to continue to stoke these nationalist feelings. So this xenophobic chill, as we described it, is quite unsettling.

Werman: Also I gather "Captain America - The Winter Soldier" has just opened in Moscow. That's ironic.

Herszenhorn: It was number one at the box office on the weekend that it opened and folks continued to head to the movies as they do all over the world. It's a disconnect between what's seen as a political flap, a political disagreement, and the cultural affinity that people now feel is universal and international all over the world, for whether it's for superheroes or anything else.

Werman: The New York Time's David Herszenhorn in Moscow. Thanks very much.

Herszenhorn: Sure thing. Thank you.