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Fighting Intensifies In Eastern Ukraine


And President Obama's treasury secretary, Jack Lew, is in Kiev this morning. He's announcing new financial support for Ukraine. Fighting has pushed Ukraine into a financial crisis. And that fighting has intensified in the east of the country, where Russian-backed militias are trying to seize even more territory in areas they already control. NPR's Corey Flintoff joined us from one of those enclaves, the city of Donetsk. Good morning.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: So fighting - what are you seeing?

FLINTOFF: We're actually hearing a lot more of the fighting. I'm in central Donetsk right now. And we've been hearing shelling from the direction of the Donetsk airport last night and this morning. And in fact, I've been hearing it now every few minutes; you hear a burst of artillery fire. Ukraine's defense ministry said three more Ukrainian soldiers were killed and about 15 wounded in the past 24 hours. And unfortunately, that's a lagging indicator. I mean, it's old news already, and there's probably more casualties. The fighters on both sides are hunkered down in bunkers and trenches in this terribly cold weather. And they're exchanging artillery fire on each other's positions. It's kind of a war of attrition. And it's a very horrible way of fighting.

MONTAGNE: Although, is Donetsk - is it not behind the front lines? I mean, how did you get there?

FLINTOFF: It's possible to get into Donetsk. It's a matter of a long drive from the nearest major airport. It's about an eight-hour drive to cover a distance that we used to cover in three hours. You pass through a great many checkpoints on both sides, Ukrainian and separatist troops. And of course they're jumpy. They're edgy. They're worried about infiltration across the lines. So it takes a long time to do it. And we see, you know, a lot of military positions here. Although, we came by the back roads, so we didn't come into any places that were actually under fire.

MONTAGNE: And, Corey, we're also hearing about shelling in another city that's south of where you are. Tell us about that.

FLINTOFF: Yes, that's Mariupol. It's the last remaining big city in this area that the separatists don't control. It's a city of about 500,000 people. It's an important port. It would give them access to supplies by sea. But more importantly, it's on a strategic highway between the Russian border and the Russian-occupied territory in Crimea. And as it is right now, the Russians don't have road access to Crimea. They can't supply it very easily. So this would be an important thing for them. And of course, the United States and NATO are saying that the Russians are deeply involved in this fighting, that they're providing money and active-duty troops and heavy weapons, high-technology weapons, to the separatists.

MONTAGNE: Well, the U.S. and the European Union are also talking about financial support and other kinds of support for Ukraine. So let's get back to the U.S. treasury secretary, Jack Lew, and the deal that he signed there in the capital this morning.

FLINTOFF: Yes. Just this morning, he signed an agreement that would provide the Ukrainian government with about $2 billion in loan guarantees. And that money would be used to help the government to take care of some immediate needs right now for social spending, things like paying pensions.

Significantly, too, Secretary Lew said that the United States is ready to increase sanctions against Russia if it's necessary. One very serious sanction might be to block Russia from getting access to the SWIFT international banking system. That would be something that would make it very difficult for Russia to move money internationally. And the Russians take that quite seriously. Some top Russian officials recently have warned that they would consider it a very dangerous threat if the international community were to do that.

MONTAGNE: Corey, thanks very much.

FLINTOFF: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Corey Flintoff, joining us from the city of Donetsk in Ukraine, a city controlled by Russian-backed separatists. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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