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Russian Troops Pullback From Ukraine Border, Remain In Crimea


This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

In the standoff between Russia and Ukraine, some mixed signals this morning.

GREENE: Russia had been conducting military exercises along its western border with Ukraine. Those exercises have now ended.

WERTHEIMER: But Russian troops in the Crimean peninsula of Ukraine are another matter. They remain in place, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, this morning, would not rule out using force in Ukraine. All this has led many in the West to question Putin's intentions.

GREENE: And joining us on the line is New York Times correspondent Steven Lee Myers, who's in Moscow. Steven, good morning.

STEVEN LEE MYERS: Good morning.

GREENE: So, one of the reports we're getting this morning is that Russian soldiers are being sent back to their bases. They were all these military exercises in the western part of Russia. What do you make of this? What is Vladimir Putin up to?

MYERS: There's actually less here than there might seem. Last week, he ordered a large military exercise, a snap drill of forces throughout the western military district, and that was always scheduled to end today. But there is nothing about the return of any of the soldiers who are now in Crimea.

GREENE: An important distinction to make. I mean, these are soldiers who are doing exercises within Russian borders. This does not apply to the soldiers who are actually in Ukraine itself.

MYERS: They always said that this exercise had nothing to do with the events in Ukraine. Though, serially, the timing and the scale of it was intended to send a very powerful message.

GREENE: Your newspaper reported on a phone call between Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, over the weekend. Merkel reportedly came away from that conversation thinking that Putin had, quote, "lost touch with reality." I mean, based on what you've been watching in Moscow, what do you think she means?

MYERS: I think what a lot of people are observing is that President Putin believes a certain narrative of what happened in Ukraine - many Russians do. The nuances of what actually happened - the flight of Yanukovych - all of that is not really reported here. And so I think that many people in President Putin's circle don't see this the same way.

I mean, a lot of people sort of mockingly said that Merkel thinks Putin's lost his mind. But I think what she's trying to say is that he's just seeing things from such a different perspective, that it's hard to engage with him on what's actually going on.

GREENE: He has said that there are ethnic Russians, Russian speakers in the Ukraine who are actually under threat here from fascist Ukrainian nationalists. And that is making its way into a Russian media campaign - I mean, to portray events in Ukraine in this way. How exactly is that playing out? What are you seeing on TV there?

MYERS: The message that's being drilled in here, especially through official statements and media coverage, is that every Ukrainian in Kiev now is a Nazi. And, you know, that resonates deeply here, obviously, given the history. And many Russians fear that there's going to be some sort of violent takeover or, you know, attacks on Russians in Ukraine, or suppression of Russians. There haven't been any widely reported attacks on ethnic Russians.

But the fervor that you hear in Russian media and official statements would lead you to believe that, in fact, there's a war already going on in Ukraine.

GREENE: What are you hearing from the Russian public? How are they either supporting what Putin is doing or not?

MYERS: You know, it's hard to take a pulse of the entire nation. There was one poll that was done, mind you, before the incursion by Russian troops into Crimea that said that 73 percent of Russians oppose interference in Ukraine. There's a great deal of solidarity between Ukrainians and Russians. And I haven't really heard anyone here express any support for the notion of a war against a fraternal country like Ukraine.

GREENE: There is not overwhelming support for a war. But what about what Putin has done so far?

MYERS: There was an interesting comment in the respected newspaper, Izvestia, where somebody compared this to what Hitler did in 1938, seizing Austria. So there are voices of dissent out there. There are many people who are extremely worried about the prospect of a war.

GREENE: Steven Lee Myers is a correspondent for The New York Times in Moscow. Steven, thanks very much.

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

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