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World

Many In Eastern Ukraine Want To Join Russia

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

An update now from eastern Ukraine, where, for the last three years, Russia has fueled a separatist war. Vladimir Putin insists he wants only to protect ethnic Russians there. He hasn't annexed the region as he did Crimea. And Russia hasn't even officially recognized the independence of Ukraine's breakaway regions. But Russia is where the sympathies of many people there lie. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson explains why.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: There's little sign of the war in the capital of what anti-Ukrainian forces call the Donetsk People's Republic or DPR. The main streets and facades in the city of Donetsk look pristine, if empty, given that many people who prefer Donetsk stay a part of Ukraine have moved away.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONSTRUCTION NOISE)

NELSON: The municipal workers are nevertheless out in force, filling potholes and making repairs. It's my first time in the self-proclaimed republic in nearly three years because American journalists are rarely allowed inside. Just how normal everything looks here is striking. DPR officials say credit goes to the Russian Federation, which provides 80 percent of the material they need to keep services running.

The West accuses Russia of keeping the war going, as well, providing DPR with military aid and personnel, which the Kremlin denies. To thank their eastern neighbor, DPR officials have erected a large Heart Russia sign near the Lenin statue in downtown Donetsk.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONSTRUCTION NOISE)

NELSON: Evgeniy Osechkin is the head of utility services in the district.

EVGENIY OSECHKIN: (Speaking Russian).

NELSON: He welcomes the Russian help but says he'd be happy if Donetsk formally joined the Russian Federation.

OSECHKIN: (Speaking Russian).

NELSON: Osechkin says being part of a powerful country is better than being an independent, little one. The truth is Donetsk already looks and feels like it's part of the Russian Federation. Shelves are stocked with Russian goods. Ukrainian enterprises here are controlled by the DPR government, which, because of international sanctions, only does business with the Russian Federation. The only legal currency in Donetsk is the Russian ruble. And all banks here are linked to Moscow. Hotels and shops only accept Russian and DPR-issued credit cards.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Russian).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Russian).

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENT BEING STAMPED)

NELSON: DPR officials are also issuing their own passports intended for travel and identification purposes. They're read like the Russian ones. Vladimir Krasnoshchyoka is the chief of DPR Immigration Services.

VLADIMIR KRASNOSHCHYOKA: (Speaking Russian).

NELSON: He says DPR passports are necessary because the Ukrainian government no longer issues documents to DPR residents.

KRASNOSHCHYOKA: (Speaking Russian).

NELSON: He says, so far, the new DPR passports are recognized only by Russia and two breakaway republics in Georgia. Offtake, Krasnoshchyoka tells me he wouldn't mind if DPR passports become obsolete one day if Donetsk joins the Russian Federation. That union with Russia is something many people who still live here want.

Some tell me in private they are envious of Crimea, where it's quiet and where Moscow nearly doubled salaries and pensions to bring Crimeans more in line with what Russians earn. Sergey Ivanov, a chief at Kirovo mine, says annexation is a matter of urgency for miners in Donetsk.

SERGEY IVANOV: (Speaking Russian).

NELSON: He says an economic blockade imposed in March by Kiev has led to salary cuts and layoffs at mines in the region, hardships he believes would end with Russian Federation membership.

IVANOV: (Speaking Russian).

NELSON: Ivanov says he no longer considers himself a Ukrainian citizen, adding, quote, "the war has separated us. Not that the war is ever far away."

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER FLOWING)

NELSON: Key utilities like this water filtration plant are near the frontline where DPR and Ukrainian forces clash daily. Shelling interrupts my conversation with the DPR's water services general director, Oleg Mokriy.

OLEG MOKRIY: (Speaking Russian).

NELSON: In between the explosions, Mokriy says in Russian that Ukraine has provided neither salaries nor materials for this filtration plant since 2014. A colleague translates.

MOKRIY: (Through interpreter) And they actually don't care what's happening here for the territory they are not controlling right now and, actually, for the territory they are controlling right now.

NELSON: It's quite active.

Mokriy tells me the explosions are normal and not to worry.

MOKRIY: (Speaking Russian).

NELSON: But Mokriy admits that he does worry an errant rocket will hit one of his chlorine tanks and cause a devastating explosion. It's the kind of danger that makes Donetsk residents want to join the Russian Federation in hopes the fighting will end. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Donetsk. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.