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In Eastern Ukraine, A Cease-Fire In Name Only

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Vladimir Putin has turned up. The Russian leader had been strangely absent from the public eye for 10 days, causing many to wonder about his health. Putin appeared this morning in a meeting in St. Petersburg. To those curious about his absence, Putin said, quote, "things would be boring without gossip."

All this has added to the mystery of a man whose plans and strategy are never easy to decipher. Many people have been trying in eastern Ukraine, where Russia is backing a separatist movement in a conflict that has killed more than 5,000 people. There is officially a cease-fire in place there. And it's holding for the most part, but there's been sporadic fighting near the coastal city of Mariupol. That's where we caught up earlier with NPR's Corey Flintoff.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: It's a port city, a manufacturing city, and it also has coal mines. So in many ways, it's a very valuable prize, and that's one of the reasons why the fighting here hasn't stopped. We heard shelling from a nearby village called Shyrokine, where the Ukrainian military says the separatists and their Russian allies have been violating this cease-fire practically every day.

GREENE: If the Russian separatists were to take this city, that would give them control of sort of this land bridge, in a way, along the water. So Russia would have access to Crimea, which they annexed the last year. Is that why the city's so important?

FLINTOFF: That's exactly right. Mariupol is the biggest city on the coastline, and there's a road along that coast that leads from the Russian border right down to Crimea. And that would give land access for the Russians to supply their territory in Crimea.

GREENE: What is life like right now, I mean, for people who were told that there would be a cease-fire, but, you know, as you said, fighting is going on there still?

FLINTOFF: Well, as you can imagine, people are really anxious about the future. Several people told us that they're absolutely convinced that there's going to be more fighting and probably an assault on the city in the next month or so. A young woman I talked to yesterday said that if an attack comes, people are ready to go to their basements and wait it out. Most people here say everything depends on a decision from one man in Moscow, and that's President Putin.

GREENE: Of course, Vladimir Putin has said that Russia is not as involved in this conflict as the West says he is. There's all this speculation about why Putin hasn't been seen on television or elsewhere recently.

FLINTOFF: Usually, Putin has a really full public schedule, and, you know, practically his every move is covered by the state news media. So it's really unusual to have a stretch like this where he's not in the public eye. The Kremlin actually has been rather secretive about his absence. He canceled a planned summit meeting in Kazakhstan, and the government never really explained why. There've been a couple of instances where the state media showed footage of Putin meeting with various officials, but it was questionable about whether the footage was really current or it something that was taken in the past.

But I guess the real answer as to why people are so concerned about Putin's absence is that this is a system where one man holds enormous power. And if anything happens to him, the country could be facing a time of real uncertainty and instability.

GREENE: All right. We've been speaking to NPR's Corey Flintoff, who is on the road in eastern Ukraine. He's been visiting the port city of Mariupol. Corey, thanks a lot.

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