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U.S. Still Exploring Diplomatic Ways To End Crimea Standoff


It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm David Greene.

On the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, armed men, widely believed to be Russian soldiers, are firmly in control. This military standoff has been peaceful so far, a relief to the United States and its allies who are seeking a diplomatic resolution with Russia.

MONTAGNE: Yesterday, the German and British leaders got on the phone with Russia's President Vladimir Putin. Ukraine's prime minister will meet President Obama in Washington later this week. But so far, there are few signs that these efforts are working.

GREENE: NPR's Emily Harris has been reporting from Crimea, and she has now moved to the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, and joins us on the line. Emily, good morning.

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: And so let's start with some of the phone calls that we've been hearing about. Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister David Cameron both have been on the phone with Vladimir Putin. Do you get a sense of the gist of these conversations?

HARRIS: From the statements that the sides are putting out, they all say they want to deescalate the tensions in Crimea. But the Kremlin says that Putin, in his conservations, pointed out differences that they have on how to see this conflict, in particular, over who has the right, basically, to be in charge. Russia supports the current leadership in Crimea as legitimate. Europe and the U.S. completely disagree with that.

The Kremlin also says that in the phone conversations, Putin was criticizing the current authorities in Kiev for not reining in what Russia calls ultranationalist Ukrainian groups across the country. Essentially, Merkel and Cameron have been trying to get President Putin to at least agree to set up a group to talk about the crisis, and Putin said he would discuss this idea today with his advisors.

GREENE: So, a lot of disagreement remaining. And any signs at all pointing to some sort of resolution at this point?

HARRIS: There has been some contact reported over the past week between Kiev and Moscow, direct contact, which is how the U.S. and Europe say this ultimately has to be resolved, but no progress from there. Putin keeps talking about what's known as the February 21st Agreement, which was a deal between then-President Yanukovych of Ukraine and opposition leaders. It was signed the day after of the worst violence in Kiev, in which scores of people were shot and killed. That agreement called for presidential elections by December and establishing a government of, quote-unquote, "national trust," a lot of political water under the bridge since then. But Moscow still seems to want to somehow make sure that its interests or the interests of the ethnic Russian population in Ukraine will be well represented in Kiev.

GREENE: So, Emily, I mean, even if this new government in Kiev is not sticking to that February 21st Agreement that Putin is talking about, there are plans for presidential elections underway already in Ukraine. Couldn't that be some sort of fresh start?

HARRIS: The U.S. says that's the next step, but Russia says that the current government in Kiev was put in place through a coup, so whatever it does is not legitimate. It will be important to see who runs and what the results are, and that may affect the Kremlin's reactions. This weekend, the leader of a Ukrainian nationalist coalition, the Right Sector, which played a significant role in pushing the old government out, he announced plans to run. Former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko could potentially run. She has had good relations with Putin in the past.

There's a strong desire among a lot of Ukrainians to have a completely fresh start, as you put it, a feeling that many politicians have, in some way, tainted by corruption when you've been in office. But before we get to May, which is a couple months away, the election that everyone's got their eye on now is next Sunday in Crimea, where the current authorities there are trying to put together a vote asking residents if they would like to join Russia. The West says this vote is illegal and won't recognize the results, especially if it's pro-Russia. But Moscow could potentially use those results to harden its position.

GREENE: And Emily, you've just been reporting in Crimea, and have just left. What were some of your impressions about the situation?

HARRIS: I watched the pro-Russia Crimean prime minister swear in a few dozen people into what he called the beginning of the Crimean Armed Forces. I went up to the edge of Crimea, where it rejoins the Ukrainian mainland, and saw Russian soldiers dug in with sandbags, checking people driving through, and well-armed men in uniforms with no insignia. They've clearly set up a camp there.

There haven't been any serious confrontations between the Russian troops and Ukrainian troops, but there have been some conflicts between demonstrators and some of Crimea's Muslim population. The Crimean Tatars have reported getting Xs marked on the doors of their homes. This has significant, frightening historical resonance from the time when the Tatars were deported from Crimea under Soviet rule. So one big question is: Will something flare up, either between populations or militaries, in Crimea before diplomacy can work?

NPR's Emily Harris, joining us from the Ukrainian capital, Kiev. Emily, thanks very much.

Thanks, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

International Correspondent Emily Harris is based in Jerusalem as part of NPR's Mideast team. Her post covers news related to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. She began this role in March of 2013.
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