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The view from eastern Ukraine

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

President Biden today further condemned Russian President Vladimir Putin's move to recognize the independence of two separatist regions in eastern Ukraine and sending in so-called peacekeeping forces.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: He's setting up a rationale to go much further. This is the beginning of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, as he indicated and asked permission to be able to do from his Duma.

CHANG: Russia's Parliament today handed Putin the power to deploy military forces outside of Russia's borders, a key step towards further military action. Eastern Ukraine is where we find NPR's Eleanor Beardsley, who joins us now. Hi, Eleanor.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: So where exactly are you at this moment?

BEARDSLEY: Well, I'm in a town called Kramatorsk, which is in the Donetsk oblast, or region, in eastern Ukraine. It's not far from the Russian border, and it's just over the boundary from the separatist enclave of the so-called People's Republic of Donetsk. This town is now the regional capital of this oblast because the larger town of Donetsk, which was the capital, has been occupied by the separatists for eight years now.

We've been driving around to towns and villages in the area, and it's not easy. Because of this war, this region is carved up. And there are roadblocks. You can't get into the separatist enclaves. I had to go through several Ukrainian army checkpoints today. And at the same time, it looks normal. It's flat, like most of the rest of Ukraine. There are a lot of old factories, little charming villages and some lovely golden-domed Orthodox churches.

CHANG: Well, as you're talking to people there, how are they reacting to Putin's speech last night and this decision to send so-called peacekeepers just across the boundary of this region you're in?

BEARDSLEY: Right. People told me they're very uneasy. They don't know, for example, if they're going to wake up tomorrow morning and see the Russian troops in their town. So I talked with 32-year-old Anna, who didn't want to give her last name because she was afraid, and she's a chemistry and biology teacher at a middle school.

ANNA: (Speaking Russian).

BEARDSLEY: She says she watched Putin's speech last night. She says everyone feels like something's going to happen, and we're all scared. She said she loves her job. She has a lot of friends. And she doesn't want to leave this place. Some men in the same town told me they would fight if the Russians came.

CHANG: Well, President Putin says the reason for his latest moves, in part, is to protect Russian speakers in this area. I'm curious. What do you make of that justification?

BEARDSLEY: Well, everyone here speaks Russian, so that's simply not true. And people here do know that that's a propaganda ploy of Putin's. I actually didn't meet anyone today who was pro-Russian, but I did go to a little village that's divided. And I spoke with a 33-year-old shopkeeper, Roman Zatiamen, who told me about it. Here he is with my interpreter.

ROMAN ZATIAMEN: (Through interpreter) It's like half of people is, like, pro-Ukrainian, but half of people is pro-Russian people. People are scared to just speak normally in the street.

BEARDSLEY: You know, he told me that pro-Ukrainians wouldn't talk to the media in case the Russians do come and it changes sides. He said last night, pro-Russian people celebrated very discreetly after Putin's announcement. But he said they just want an end to this - the fighting, the division, the deprivation. Many of them have children and grandchildren in those separatist places, and they just want to be able to see them. And that's why they want the Russians to come to end it.

CHANG: Yeah. Well, Eleanor, can you just tell us a little more about this region, the Donbas? Like, what has it been like to live there while this conflict has been ongoing for several years now?

BEARDSLEY: Yeah. Well, this region was poor before this conflict. It's a former industrial heartland. It's been compared to West Virginia, with coal mines and poverty, a lot of hardship. And this this conflict is ripping families apart and devastating the economy even more. And I witnessed a very sad scene today - a family at a bus stop. A 32-year-old daughter was getting on a bus to Poland, where she found a job, leaving her 6-year-old child with her parents. And she won't be back until the summer. You know, they were all crying. And the bus pulled away, and the grandparents and the little boy walked away, holding hands. And these people told me they just - they're tired of war and politics. They just want work, and they just want their families to be together.

CHANG: That is NPR's Eleanor Beardsley. Thank you so much, Eleanor.

BEARDSLEY: Good to be with you, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.