Caught Between Russia And Ukraine, Border Cities Share Only Worry

The deployment of tens of thousands of Russian troops along their country’s western border with Ukraine worries the new government in Kiev and its Western allies, including President Obama.

In a phone call Friday, he asked Russian President Vladimir Putin to pull those forces back, a demand likely to be repeated by Secretary of State John Kerry when he meets with his Russian counterpart in Paris Sunday.

But people in the Russian border city of Belgorod, one of the places where troops have been gathering, say they can’t understand why the U.S. is making such a fuss.

Armored vehicles belonging to Russian paratroopers were recently spotted on a train crossing an overpass outside Belgorod.

A man who asked not to be identified because he feared police retribution says the military vehicles — which were headed toward the nearby border with Ukraine — took residents by surprise.

“We only see paratroopers on national holidays,” he says.

But resident Elena Gupalova says she’s happy to have Russian soldiers nearby so they can protect Belgorod from the strife across the border.

The sales clerk says what’s happening in eastern Ukraine is really terrible. She talks of right-wing extremists murdering people, which she heard about from friends who live in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, an hour’s drive away.

“We want to feel calm and walk on our streets without fear,” Gupalova adds.

She and others here say they also want stability for eastern Ukrainians, whom they call “brothers.”

It’s not just an expression, says Viktor Sapryka, who heads the Cross-Border Cooperation research center at Belgorod State University.

“I think 75 percent have relatives in Ukraine,” Sapryka says. “Different political situation of course, but relations are the same because we have very close contact.”

Sapryka says his parents, for example, live in Kharkiv and routinely cross into Russia to visit his grandparents in Belgorod.

Local publisher Oleg Shevstov, who also has relatives in Kharkiv, says the local Russian-Ukrainian connection goes far beyond social ties.

He estimates that salaries in Belgorod, which is a key supplier of Russian pork products, are three to four times higher than in eastern Ukraine. The publisher says given flexible visa and work rules for Ukrainians in Russia, many of them come to his city to work.

Belgorod residents, on the other hand, go to Kharkiv to shop and eat at restaurants or visit night clubs, because it’s a lot cheaper there, Shevstov says.

“We depend on each other and maybe it can change, but I don’t think so,” Shevstov says.

For now, there’s a lot of nervousness in Belgorod. Thousands of Russian-speaking Ukrainians are reported to have moved in with relatives here. Border crossings in at least four nearby Russian towns and villages are said to be closed to all but bus and foot traffic.

At the main bus station in Belgorod, drivers say the number of Russians traveling to Ukraine is down by half.

One Ukrainian driver, who refuses to give his name, blames the new government in Kiev for his economic trouble and says he’d like to see eastern Ukraine go the way of Crimea and become part of Russia.

But none of the Russians interviewed by NPR want a military attack or annexation. Instead, what they hope is that Ukraine will become a loose federation with strong ties to Moscow.

“People of west Ukraine, people of north Ukraine, people of east Ukraine, and south Ukraine — they are all different,” Sapryka says. “They have different political understanding, different, actually, blood, because a lot of people of east of Ukraine have Russian roots, of course.”

That’s why the West needs Russian help, he adds, if it wants to resolve the ongoing crisis.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript :

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I’m Rachel Martin.

Tens of thousands of Russian troops are still amassed along their country’s western border with Ukraine. And that posture worries the new government in Kiev and its Western allies, including the United States. In a recent phone call, President Obama asked Russian President Vladimir Putin to pull those forces back. It’s a demand likely to be repeated by Secretary of State John Kerry during his talks with his Russian counterpart in Paris today. But Russians in one sleepy border city, witch has close ties to Ukraine, say they can’t understand America’s concerns.

NPR’s Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson recently traveled to Western Russia to learn more.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARMORED VEHICLES)

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Armored vehicles belonging to Russian paratroopers were recently spotted on a train crossing this overpass outside the Russian city of Belgorod.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: This man, who asks not to be identified because he fears police retribution, says seeing military vehicles, which were headed to the nearby border with Ukraine, took residents by surprise. He says we only see paratroopers on national holidays.

Resident Elena Gupalova says she’s happy to have Russian soldiers nearby, so they can protect Belgorod from the strife across the border.

ELENA GUPALOVA: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: The sales clerk says what’s happening in Eastern Ukraine is really terrible. She talks of right wing extremists murdering people, which she heard about from friends who live in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, an hours drive away.

Gupalova add: We want to feel calm and walk on our streets without fear. She and others here say they also want stability for Eastern Ukrainians, who they call brothers. It’s not just an expression says Viktor Sapryka, who heads the Cross Border Cooperation Research Center at Belgorod State University.

VIKTOR SAPRYKA: I think 75 percent have relatives in Ukraine. Different political situation of course, but relations the same because we have very close contact.

NELSON: Sapryka says his parents, for example, live in Kharkiv and routinely cross into Russia to visit his grandparents in Belgorod.

Local publisher Oleg Shevstov, who also has relatives in Kharkiv, says the local Russian-Ukrainian connection goes far beyond social ties. He estimates that salaries in Belgorod, which is a key supplier of Russian pork products, are three to four times higher than in Eastern Ukraine. The publisher says, given flexible visas and work rules for Ukrainians in Russia, many of them come to a city to work.

Belgorod residents, on the other hand, go to Kharkiv to shop and eat at restaurants or visit nightclubs, because it’s a lot cheaper there, Shevstov says.

OLEG SHEVSTOV: We depend on each other and maybe it can change, but I don’t think so.

NELSON: For now, there’s a lot of nervousness in Belgorod. Thousands of Russian-speaking Ukrainians are reported to have moved in with relatives here. Border-crossings in at least four nearby Russian towns and villages are said to be closed to all but busses and foot traffic.

(SOUNDBITE OF A BUS)

NELSON: At the main bus station in Belgorod, drivers say the number of Russians traveling to Ukraine is down by half.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: This Ukrainian driver, who refuses to give his name, blames the new government in Kiev for his economic trouble. He says he’d like to see Eastern Ukraine go the way of Crimea and become part of Russia. But none of the Russians interviewed by NPR want a military attack or annexation. Instead, what they hope, is that Ukraine will become a loose federation with close strong ties to Moscow.

Again, researcher Viktor Sapryka.

SAPRYKA: People of West Ukraine, people of North Ukraine, people of East Ukraine and South Ukraine, they are all different. They have different political understanding. Different actually blood because a lot people of Eastern Ukraine have Russian roots, of course.

NELSON: He adds that’s why the West needs Russian help if it wants to resolve the ongoing crisis.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News.

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

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