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Russian Troops, Supplies Pour Over Border Into Eastern Ukraine

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations is warning the Ukraine crisis could spin out of control. Samantha Power says Russia has undermined a cease-fire agreement reached in September. She cited growing reports of Russian convoys arriving in eastern Ukraine to support pro-Russia separatists.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Andrew Kramer has been reporting on the Ukraine conflict for The New York Times and we reached him in the eastern Ukrainian city of Dnipropetrovsk.

Welcome to the program, Mr. Kramer.

ANDREW KRAMER: Thank you for having me on.

SIEGEL: Tell us, this week the NATO commander General Philip Breedlove confirmed Ukrainian reports of Russian troops, tanks and artillery pouring over the border into eastern Ukraine to support pro-Russian separatists. Have the battle lines in eastern Ukraine changed?

KRAMER: They have not changed since September 5 when a cease-fire was signed between pro-Russian rebels in the Ukrainian government, but quite a lot is changing behind those lines inside the rebel territory. You see columns of trucks with tarpaulins over the back covering their cargo, tanks and howitzer guns on the roads moving around quite openly. Another interesting development has been the appearance of soldiers in green uniforms without an insignia and they don't talk to journalists but their appearance has once again given rise to the question of whether the so-called little green men of Russia are on the march?

SIEGEL: So it sounds from what you're describing that pro-Russian or de facto Russian troops are effectively digging in in the rebel-held area?

KRAMER: That's right. They're reinforcing. They're displaying lots of hardware and the question is whether this is a defensive maneuver to discourage Ukraine from once again initiating military action against them should the cease-fire collapse, or whether there's an intention here to expand their territory and usurp other parts of Ukraine.

SIEGEL: Well, let's move on to that in a moment. First, do the Ukrainian Armed Forces have any chance of either holding ground or retaking separatist-held territory, given the forces that have been arriving there?

KRAMER: I've been covering here in eastern Ukraine a movement of volunteers helping the military. These are women who sometimes chop up vegetables to make instant soup or they send warm clothes to the front and the reason why this is relevant to your question is that the Ukraine military's in a very sorry state. You'll see soldiers with decaying teeth, very thin, poorly-equipped out on the front and with the new military equipment coming in from Russia. It's very unclear whether they can sustain that fight. Then of course, they do have the support of the population, as these volunteers show.

SIEGEL: Well, then - on the Russian side, what is your sense of Russian ambitions in Ukraine? Is it to seize more territory that would connect the East to Crimea that they've already taken or to keep the Ukrainians off balance, or are they making it up as they go along?

KRAMER: I think I would have to cite President Vladimir Putin when he gave his speech after the annexation of Crimea. He said that a spring which is compressed will bounce back and he was referring to the loss of territory after the collapse of the Soviet Union. So how far that spring will bounce back is really unknown. In the immediate future here in eastern Ukraine there's always the option that they might continue their march westward and join this territory with Crimea.

SIEGEL: Just last month Ukrainian voters endorsed the pro-Western parties of President Poroshenko and Prime Minster Yatsenyuk. It's been a few weeks since that vote. Is there any sign that that government can move forward on other matters - economic or political reforms -while this separatist crisis rages in the east?

KRAMER: My answer would be that there hasn't been a clear indication that they're willing to tackle corruption or other reforms, including energy efficiency reforms which are very critical for Ukraine while this conflict is ongoing and this may in fact be one of the intentions of the Russian-backed movement, is to hobble the consolidation of a pro-Western government in Kiev.

SIEGEL: That's Andrew Kramer of The New York Times in eastern Ukraine.

Thank you very much.

KRAMER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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