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After Brief Respite, Conflict In Ukraine Flares Back Up

ARUN RATH, HOST:

The war in eastern Ukraine seems to have restarted. Russian-backed militias have launched an offensive on several fronts. NATO says that Russian troops are now openly taking part in the assault, providing heavy weapons and advanced technology to the militias. President Obama says the U.S. is considering all options short of military action, and the European Union has called a meeting of its foreign ministers. We've been speaking with NPR's Corey Flintoff in Kyiv. I asked him about the situation on the ground in eastern Ukraine.

COREY FLINTOFF: Well, Arun, the separatist leader in Donetsk - Alexander Zakharchenko is his name - said on Friday that he won't be seeking any more cease-fires. He said the militias would go on the offensive and that seems to be exactly what's happening. Yesterday, the militias fired several volleys of rockets into Mariupol. That's a port city in southeastern Ukraine. They killed at least 30 people, wounded dozens more, and that attack was widely denounced. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe - the OSCE - called it an indiscriminate attack on civilians, reckless and disgraceful. But the militias have kept up their attack on the city's defenses. They're also attacking a rail hub in Luhansk province, and they're still pushing at Ukrainian positions that are close to the main city of Donetsk.

RATH: Corey, we're hearing that Russian troops are taking a much more open part in this fighting, despite the repeated denials from President Putin. Is their firm evidence now that these are really Russian troops?

FLINTOFF: Well, President Putin denied that Russian troops were in Crimea last spring, but once his troops had seized the Peninsula, he admitted, in effect, that he had been lying. NATO says it's been monitoring these columns of vehicles with heavy weapons that have been flowing in from Russia. They even measure the heat signatures of these vehicles, and they say it's clear that it's a buildup of Russian troops and weapons inside Ukraine. There's also been a lot of video shot by reporters and civilians, including, for instance, one that appears to show troops with Russian Marine insignia fighting at the Donetsk airport. I've seen other photos that show tanks and rocket launchers that are of a newer type that only the Russian military uses. President Obama referred just today to what he said was, and I'm quoting, "Russian equipment, Russian financing, Russian training and Russian troops" who are backing up these separatists.

RATH: And President Obama also said that Washington is considering all options short of military action to isolate Russia. But will anything short of military action stop this offensive?

FLINTOFF: Well, Vladimir Putin seems to have considered the possible consequences, including increased sanctions and greater isolation, and apparently decided that he doesn't care. Last week, several Russian officials mentioned what they considered to be the most severe financial sanction of all. And that would be cutting Russia off from the SWIFT banking system. It would make it really difficult for Russia to transfer money internationally. One official said it would be a sign that the Cold War was officially underway. So it shows that the Russians have been thinking about this, but it hasn't deterred them. Many analysts think this offensive is a drive to get as much strategic territory under the separatist control as possible before turning this region into a frozen conflict. You know, that would give Russia a lot of leverage over the Ukrainian government, and nothing short of war would dislodge them.

RATH: NPR's Corey Flintoff in Kyiv. Corey, thank you.

FLINTOFF: Thank you, Arun. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.