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The latest on Russia-Ukraine tensions

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Despite Russia's vast military buildup on its border with Ukraine, the action so far has been mostly diplomatic. But early today, artillery shells landed in eastern Ukraine. Ukraine blamed Russia. Russia blamed Ukraine. Neither side disputes the shelling was more serious than the usual ceasefire violations that routinely happen in the area, and it comes as Russia again says the West has failed to address its security concerns.

Let's hear now from NPR's Joanna Kakissis in Kyiv and Charles Maynes in Moscow. Hi, you two.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Hi there.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Hello.

KELLY: Joanna, you first. You've been talking with people on the front line. What are they telling you?

KAKISSIS: So we've talked to people in Donbas at eastern Ukraine who live right along the border with the occupied areas, and shelling is not unusual here. But what is unusual, according to Ukrainian defense sources, is that multiple areas along the front line were shelled at the same time today. And at least one town - it's called Vrubivka - it hasn't seen shelling in years.

Today, the elementary school there got hit. We spoke to the school principal, Olena Yarenya, and she said the school was full of students.

OLENA YARENYA: (Through interpreter) Around 10 a.m., we heard explosions. Unfortunately, we do not have a bomb shelter, so we hid in the hallway, where there are no windows. Then we heard a very powerful explosion. We heard the glass falling.

The situation was terrible, unexpected. The children started crying. Some were hysterical. They begged to be taken home to their parents.

KAKISSIS: Luckily, none of the kids got hurt, but this was not the only school hit near the front line. Ukrainian authorities say artillery reduced a kindergarten in another town to rubble.

KELLY: Charles, let me bring you in. You, as I mentioned, you're in Moscow. What do we know about Russia's intentions here? And is the rhetoric where you are changing?

MAYNES: You know, yes and no. Russia's lower house of parliament, the Duma, this week called for a formal recognition of these breakaway Russian-backed territories in the Donbas, and that has ratcheted up tensions. President Putin has not endorsed the idea of independence, but - at least not yet. But he is arguing, falsely, I might add, that a genocide is being committed against Russian speakers in the Donbas. And today's shelling is certainly lent itself to U.S. arguments that Russia is seeking a pretext to invade - in other words, a false flag operation.

But all this is happening, you know, as the Kremlin has been mocking repeatedly these U.S. claims that Russia is preparing to attack Ukraine any day, saying this is disinformation and Western hysteria and that Russia has no intention of attacking its neighbor. So it's a blur.

KELLY: And fact-check for us, if you would, these claims of a Russian pullback. Russia says it is drawing down some forces. The U.S. and NATO say, au contraire, you're actually building them up. What do we know?

MAYNES: Yeah, more conflicting versions of events on the ground. Today, the Russian Defense Ministry said more troops and armaments were leaving the area, just as the U.S. said more troops had arrived. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov made a case here that the West was simply being impatient. You know, he argued, it had taken several weeks to get forces into the region for what Russia has says are training exercises. And now that these drills are wrapping up, it would take some time to get troops back to their bases.

KELLY: Yeah. So that's the military movement or lack thereof. Meanwhile, the diplomacy - where does that stand between the U.S. and Russia?

MAYNES: You know, well, there's been this back and forth of letters. First, Russia laid out its demands, then the U.S. responded. And today, Russia responded to the response.

KELLY: (Laughter).

MAYNES: It was 10 pages with one real message - the U.S. had failed to answer Russia's core concerns, most crucially, a permanent ban on Ukraine joining NATO. Now Russia said the U.S. talk of an impending invasion of Ukraine had just distracted from what was at issue. It now says they'll be forced to make a technical military response. Now, what that means exactly is far from clear, and that's by design.

KELLY: Joanna, back to you there on the ground in Ukraine. I'm just curious, as you had these conversations with people in Donbas today, people who have already been living with war for a long time, do they seem to say today represents something different? Do they feel something has changed?

KAKISSIS: Yes, Mary Louise, they do feel like something has changed. They say their lives suddenly seem even more unpredictable than they did before. They say what happened today feels like an escalation from the Russian side.

We spoke with Viktor Shulik. He's the principal of a vocational school in yet another town that was shelled today. Here he is.

VIKTOR SHULIK: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: And here he's saying, "we had just started renovating our school, and today we got shelled." He's saying, "we don't want to go back to what it was like here seven or eight years ago, when projectiles were hitting our school walls. We don't want to go back to hiding in the basement." He's saying that everyone just wants stability, and what happened today makes stability feel very out of reach.

KELLY: And one more to you, Joanna. I'll give you last word. I've been asking Charles what the latest official statement and rhetoric out of Moscow is. What is - you've been telling me what ordinary people in Donbas are saying. What are officials in Kyiv saying? Where do they think things stand?

KAKISSIS: The Foreign Minister today said, look, this is a violation of the ceasefire, this is an escalation, and we want a response, some kind of response from the West because we feel like Russia has really stepped out of bounds here along the border.

KELLY: Thanks to you both.

MAYNES: Thank you.

KELLY: That's Joanna Kakissis in Kyiv and Charles Maynes in Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.