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Russian President Accuses Ukraine Of Planning Terror Attack In Crimea

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Russian President Vladimir Putin has accused Ukraine of planning a terror attack in Crimea. Remember, this is territory that Russia seized from Ukraine. Putin claims two Russian servicemen were killed in clashes there this week. Now, Ukrainian leaders dismiss this as, quote, "fantasy." But the question is what Russia does next, which we'll talk about with Stephen Sestanovich. He's a senior fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He's in our studios. Good morning.

STEPHEN SESTANOVICH: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What exactly is Putin claiming was done here?

SESTANOVICH: He said there were two incidents on the border between Crimea and the rest of Ukraine in which half a dozen guys had a shootout with Russian border guards. And they captured five people, saying that they were planning to launch terror attacks inside Ukraine on oil facilities and electrical infrastructure and so forth.

INSKEEP: Sounds ominous, but Petro Poroshenko, the president of Ukraine, says it's all bogus. What evidence, if any, would prove either side correct?

SESTANOVICH: Well, these guys are said to be Ukrainian military intelligence. There's - they apparently are residents - former residents of Crimea, but their affiliation with the Ukrainian military is completely unknown to anybody. And some Russian newspapers themselves - independent - have said these are maybe acting - guys acting on their own.

INSKEEP: So we really don't know anything for sure except that Putin is making this claim. And I guess people then wonder, is Putin setting up some kind of action?

SESTANOVICH: Well, that's what the Ukrainians have worried about. They have said this is a prelude to new confrontation. Poroshenko has put the Ukrainian military on alert. The - some Ukrainian military spokesmen have said, you know, they don't actually see any new military activity. But there have been reports of a Russian buildup and some reason to think that the Russians could be looking for, you know, a new incident to put more pressure on Ukraine.

INSKEEP: The role of Russia has been so much in the news here because of the presidential campaign. Donald Trump, of course, has promoted Putin and said, in many ways, that he wants different relations, better relations with Russia. Can you just remind us of the facts on the ground? Russia has said it's annexed Crimea. They had a referendum there, but it was preceded by troops taking over the place. There is...

SESTANOVICH: Yeah, there was - called the little green men...

INSKEEP: Little green men.

SESTANOVICH: ...Who appeared in Crimea from the Russian military base there and took over the territory...

INSKEEP: Before the (unintelligible) I just want to ask - then there's eastern Ukraine where Russian troops are accused of being involved in an internal conflict. Where does that stand? Where's it going?

SESTANOVICH: Well, there's a standoff there. Two - parts of two territories in eastern Ukraine are still held by Russian separatists with the support of the Russian military. There are reports of, you know, ongoing troop movements and resupply in a regular way, and there are officials who are supported by the Russians who are keeping the Ukrainians out.

INSKEEP: Your best educated guess in a few seconds here. What's on Putin's mind?

SESTANOVICH: Well, Putin has got a couple of things on his mind. He has parliamentary elections coming up next month, and stirring up patriotic fervor is always a good thing. Even...

INSKEEP: Politically, you mean, yeah.

INSKEEP: Even more important, there are scheduled meetings between Putin and Western leaders on Ukraine. And Putin has canceled them, now, saying that the Ukrainians have gone over to terror and that there is no point in having any meetings. He may not be so interested, really, in a democratic - in a diplomatic solution to this problem.

INSKEEP: OK. Stephen Sestanovich of the Council on Foreign Relations and Columbia University, thanks very much.

SESTANOVICH: A pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.