Firefights in eastern Ukraine suggest the situation there is growing even more grim

Player utilities

This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. The tensions in eastern Ukraine boiled over today in the city of Slovyansk. It started when Ukrainian forces launched an operation to force pro-Russian separatists out of occupied buildings. At least 2 pro-Russian separatists were killed in the process and now Russia's calling for new military exercises on its side of the border. Earlier today, I spoke with reporter Jacob Resneck about the thinking of the pro-Russian militants.

Jason Resneck: I just came out of a very bizarre press conference. I'm in front of the occupied administration building in Slovyansk, I'm sheltered by the Lenin monument. The conference was held by Viacheslav Ponomariov and he's the self-declared "people's mayor" of the secessionist movement. He said that earlier this morning Ukraine forces had engaged his men at checkpoints. He claimed that his men are unarmed at the checkpoints, they only reinforce with weapons if they're attacked. He said his forces only fired back in self-defense and he claimed that the Ukrainian forces now have pulled back and that they're about 500 yards from his men's forward positions. He says that the caretaker government in Kiev, which he refuses to recognize, he calls them a "junta" or a band of criminals when he's talking more colloquially. He says that they're trying to provoke these guys into a firefight so they can use it as a pretense for a full-on invasion.

Werman: We know at least two people died in this operation. I assume Kiev launches anti-terror operation as kind of a show of force. Do you think, from your perspective, did it accomplish what Kiev wanted?

Resneck: I don't think so. So far all of their so-called anti-terror operations have been disasters. The last one that they launched a little bit before Easter, the forces actually ended up switching sides and their armor personnel carriers ended up in the hands of these militants. A few days ago, I was here and I just saw them, they were just parked around the corner at the occupied police station. These guys are pretty heavily armed, pretty dug in. Looking at the sandbags, they're about 7 feet high, stacked in front of the administration building. Reporters kept asking them "Would you want Russian troops here? Do you want to join Russia?" The closest we got to a straight answer was he said "If the Russian government situation is getting out of control, I wouldn't be against having Russian troops here.

Werman: What are you hearing from everyday people in Slovyansk?

Resneck: If you talk to people here, there's no love lost for the caretaker government in Kiev that took power after Maidan. Pretty universally, they're not seen as legitimate. That said, they don't want Yanukovych back, he's also very, very unpopular here. The real problem is there's a lack of trust between the west and the east and the south. People don't trust each other at all. Their grievances are usually economic. They're worried about what any ordinary person would be, having full employment, things like that. They want broad autonomy, they want to be in control of their own destiny. They say "Look, we're not terrorists. We grew up in this land, we want it to stay peaceful." An unarmed militia guy at a checkpoint asked us to get out of the truck and talk to him. He said "Look around us, we're not terrorists. We're from this place, we're from the next village over here." They're not trying to provoke any fight, at least people on the ground ordinarily. They're asking for autonomy but I don't see anyone calling for necessarily union with Russia or they want to attack the people from Kiev. Most people here just want to have their normal lives back.

Werman: Reporter Jason Resneck speaking with us from Slovyansk. So, what was the strategy for Ukraine's leaders in today's operation? I also checked in with the BBC's Natalia Antelava, who's now in Donetsk.

Natalia Antelava: We know why they launched it. It's been very clear why they launched the operation. They launched it because they say these buildings and towns are illegally occupied by people whom they call terrorists. They have to be freed and things have to go back to normal. What we don't know is why did they withdraw? Why did they not carry it out to the end? It feels like they can't quite bring themselves to go to the end. It seems that they're terrified of provoking Russia and having Russia bring in the troops and then they've got a war on their hands that they won't be able to win. So they know that they have to do something about the situation on the ground because they most definitely don't control it, but they don't know what it is that they can do.

Werman: I know these pro-Russian separatists have some guns but if you line up the Ukrainian military next to these separatists, how do they compare?

Antelava: Some units of the Ukrainian army, and I spent time with the soldiers deployed and army units that are deployed along the border, they told us off record that they are struggling and they don't have enough food and they rely on locals to bring them food. But the army units that we saw today in Slovyansk certainly looked a lot better equipped than the pro-Russian militants are. But at the same time, like in the past and now, they seem to be under orders not to go to the end. It's clear, it's not the pro-Russian militants that they fear, it's their backers in Moscow.

Werman: Despite Ukrainian reluctance to provoke a fighting war, it does seem like things are escalating. How do you think Russia is going to respond?

Antelava: As I'm speaking to you, I'm looking at foreign minister Sergey Lavrov on my TV screen, speaking on Russian Television. We know how Russia has been responding so far, with an increasingly hostile rhetoric, with a hostile and threatening rhetoric. They are saying very clearly that if this carries on, if they say Ukrainians cannot control terrorists that are operating on their territory and they don't mean the pro-Russian activists and militants, then Russia will bring in troops. Whether it will come to this point or not is anybody's guess. But it's certainly what people here are anticipating.

Werman: You also told us earlier that any potential war is up for Putin to decide. Given Kiev's military response this week, do you still think that?

Antelava: Absolutely. It's very obvious that Kiev is trying very hard not to fight. They're doing everything not to fight, even in situations like this morning in Slovyansk where you would have expected them to go until the end and take the town, but they didn't. It's clear that they're very nervous. The government also leaves an impression of one that's quite chaotic, not very organized. Today, the interior minister updated his status on Facebook, announcing that a government building in Mariupol was liberated. Well, apparently it wasn't. What does it mean? Does it mean that he's just trying to mislead people into thinking that it had been liberated or does he not have proper information? Whatever the answer to that, people here are saying "Well, that's not good enough."

Werman: The BBC's Natalia Antelava speaking with us from Donetsk. Thanks so much, Natalia.

Antelava: Thank you.