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1:24 pm
Wed April 16, 2014

Ukrainian Tanks Roll In — But Above Them Russian Flags Fly

Originally published on Wed April 16, 2014 5:20 pm

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. We begin this hour with the latest from eastern Ukraine. The Ukrainian military is continuing an operation to oust pro-Russian militants from occupied government buildings, but today, it experienced a setback. Ukraine's defense department confirms that some of its armored personnel carriers began flying the Russian flag. NPR's Ari Shapiro went to investigate.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: The military vehicles showed up here at dawn in this industrial city of Kramatorsk. A teacher named Liza pulls out her phone to show me the video she filmed.

LIZA: It's the real tanks, as you see.

SHAPIRO: Oh, yeah. I can see the video.

LIZA: The Ukrainian army, it was at 6:00 a.m. in the old parts of Kramatorsk. There were six tanks.

SHAPIRO: Several locals in different parts of the city told us the same story. All of them were sympathetic to the pro-Russian militants. These are people who were happy to see Ukrainian military vehicles fly the Russian flag. Marina is a housewife who says the armored personnel carriers rolled right past her house. She was furious.

MARINA: (Speaking foreign language)

SHAPIRO: We are peaceful people, she says. I have a lot of children and my kids saw the tanks coming. So what jujitsu did the unarmed locals of Kramatorsk use to seize these massive Ukrainian military vehicles and flip them to the Russian side? Liza, the teacher, says nobody had to seize anything. The troops showed up miserable and demoralized.

LIZA: We are very sorry for them, really.

SHAPIRO: You mean the military tank drivers.

LIZA: Yeah, they were dirty and wanted to eat and some of our friends just came to them to let them eat.

SHAPIRO: And gave them food.

LIZA: Yes, and give them food just so, yes, a little - some bread, some water, milk.

SHAPIRO: A woman named Margarita says it was easy as that.

MARGARITA: (Through interpreter) Those guys in the old city just switched sides, gave up their vehicle and raised the Russian flag.

SHAPIRO: And once the flag was raised, a man named Yuri says...

YURI: (Speaking foreign language)

SHAPIRO: They went to the toughest place, to Slavyansk. Separatists have taken over government building in almost a dozen cities and towns around this region, but Kramatorsk and nearby Slavyansk have been the main focus of the government's military operation.

There are still plenty of tanks flying the Ukrainian flag in Kramatorsk. About a dozen are parked on the outskirts of town. The troops sitting on top don't have uniforms. It's all mismatched camouflage. They look dirty and tired, like they would rather be anywhere else. None of them will talk and there's no military spokesman on hand.

Dozens of locals showed up this morning to stand in the tank's path. Now, they sit among the blooming apricot trees, some of them drinking beer. They chat with the Ukrainian troops and give them food, maybe hoping that these men will switch sides, too. Every couple of minutes, the Ukrainian military provides an air show.

(SOUNDBITE OF JET)

SHAPIRO: A jet swoops in so low it rattles the telephone wires and sets off car alarms. Camouflage helicopters buzz overhead. Liza, the teacher, says everything about this situation feels surreal.

LIZA: I'm here to protect my town from our Ukrainian army. How strange it sounds. I realize that it sounds really strange, but I try to protect all of our country, our town from our army.

SHAPIRO: Hours after we left the scene, the tanks began to roll, their destination unclear. This video shows people throwing rocks. One tank crushes a car that somebody parks in its path. Kiev insists that this entire standoff was orchestrated by Moscow as a pretext to invade eastern Ukraine. But here in Kramatorsk, the people surrounding these tanks insist that if the army starts killing people, they will have only Ukrainian blood on their hands. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Kramatorsk. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.