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Moscow Answers Ukrainian Offensive With Warning Of Its Own


Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned today that his country would respond if its citizens or interests came under attack in Ukraine. The warning came as the interim Ukrainian government ordered a new offensive against pro-Moscow militants occupying government buildings across Eastern Ukraine. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports from Donetsk.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: As the threat of real war heats up, so does the propaganda war. One of the things journalists have been hearing a lot lately from people here is the word pravda, or truth. Don't twist what I say; please tell the truth, they tell us.

VALENTINA BELOVA: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: That's exactly what 55-year-old Valentina Belova says as I pass by her on the way to the occupied government building in downtown Donetsk. Belova says they don't trust Ukrainian TV channels because they lie.

BELOVA: (Through translator) For example, if there are 20,000 people here, I just go home and turn on the TV; and Ukrainian TV says there are just 600 people.

BEARDSLEY: She says the Russian media does tell the truth. People are nervous and tired, Belova says, and everyone is going to the drugstore all the time to get pills to calm down.

BELOVA: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: And then she switches from Russian, the common language in the east, to Ukrainian. She says: I'm Ukrainian, but I want to be linked with Russia.

Belova, like many people here, draws a link between vice President Biden's visit to Kiev yesterday, and the Ukrainian government's announcement that it was going to restart operations against pro-Moscow militants in the east. Belova says Washington calls the shots in Kiev.

BEARDSLEY: Then a man comes by and asks her why she's speaking Ukrainian.

BELOVA: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Go away, she says, and mind your own business.

A lot of people have gathered in front of the occupied building today, and there's fresh tension in the air. A contingent of coal miners has showed up in orange hard hats.

SAFIN GUSMAN IBRAGIMOVIC: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: A crowd surrounds an old man with about 30 Soviet medals across his chest, giving a TV interview. He says it's not normal that some live as millionaires and others in poverty, drawing applause from the onlookers.

IBRAGIMOVIC: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Astoundingly, 90-year-old Safin Gusman Ibragimovic fought against the Nazis in the siege of Leningrad. As he's telling us about it, a burly man who wreaks of alcohol moves in and wants to check my ID. Journalists here are constantly being questioned, and sometimes hassled, by the militants.


BEARDSLEY: BEARDSLEY: I know that. Tell him I want to know about fighting in Leningrad. Is that OK?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: The fight against fascism is a constant theme here. And almost everybody believes that the members of the interim government in Kiev, and the Maidan protesters, are far-right extremists. On the other hand, while people here like Russia, not everyone wants to leave Ukraine and be part of Russia.


BEARDSLEY: BEARDSLEY: We're escorted through the heavily guarded entrance to the occupied government building. In the inner courtyard is a second blockade of tires, sandbags, wood and barbed wire. People walk around in flak jackets and balaclavas ski masks.

VITALY IVANOV: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Vitaliy Ivanov says he's the press attache for what he calls the People's Republic of Donetsk. He says everyone here is ready for an attack as early as tomorrow. But he hopes the government won't fire on peaceful protesters.

OK, I have a question. It doesn't feel very peaceful. Like, you have these people walking around in balaclavas and it doesn't really feel very peaceful here.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

IVANOV: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Ivanov says Maidan didn't look peaceful either, but the Western media painted it so. He says the people here don't have guns but the military and police, who are on our side, are ready to defend us.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Donetsk.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.