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Ukraine Conflict Disturbs G-20 Summit

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

There is word today that Vladimir Putin plans to leave the G20 economic summit early. Russia's president got a barrage of criticism from Western leaders in Australia over his country's involvement in Ukraine. Russia denies any military activity in eastern Ukraine, but NATO says that Russian weapons and troops are crossing the border in ever-growing numbers.

NPR's Corey Flintoff joins us from Moscow. Corey, thanks for being with us.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: What do we know about what happened with Mr. Putin in Australia?

FLINTOFF: Well, things got off to a bad start when Russia deployed four of its warships off the Australian coast at the same time Putin made his visit. These ships were in international waters but Australia's Prime Minister Tony Abbott treated the move is more saber rattling on Russia's part. He even made a kind of diplomatic statement by sending a lower-level defense official to meet Putin at the airport.

Many of the other Western leaders gave Putin a very chilly welcome. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is talking about new European Union sanctions on Russians in Putin's inner circle. Stephen Harper the Canadian prime minister reportedly told Putin, I guess I'll shake your hand, but I have only one thing to say to you - you need to get out of Ukraine.

SIMON: And what can we say definitively about the situation on the ground there? Certainly the cease-fire between Russia and Ukraine negotiated back in September seems to be a thing of the past.

FLINTOFF: It is. There seems to be more fighting and there are two things really that are causing concern. Even though neither side seems to be trying to advance right now, the shelling and the rocket fire have gotten a lot more intense. The second thing is that the separatists have been receiving a lot of reinforcements and moving them up to the front lines.

SIMON: NATO says those reinforcements come from Russia. Russia very indignantly denies it. In fact, they repeat they have no military in Ukraine. If those guys in the green uniforms really are Russian, why is that so difficult to prove and call the Russian bluff?

FLINTOFF: I've been talking with an official from the main international observer group, that's the OSCE, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. OSCE observers have seen these convoys with their own eyes, they've reported on them, but the trouble is that groups like the OSCE can only report what they see and they're held to a very high standard of proof so they say the military trucks and these convoys have no markings, no license plates. The soldiers inside them, as you said, wear these plain green uniforms, no insignia. So in official terms, it's very hard to definitively say that these are Russian troops.

SIMON: Yeah so if, for example, they're not marked - there's no name, there's no unit that can be traced. All an observer can do on the ground is say, this is what we've seen. They can't it follow beyond that.

FLINTOFF: Exactly.

SIMON: A very quick question - Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 in July. Australia has a particular concern about that, doesn't it, the shoot-down of that airliner?

FLINTOFF: They do because Australia lost 28 people in that crash and Prime Minister Abbott and a lot of other Australians blame Russia for supplying arms to the militants in eastern Ukraine and then that's what resulted in this shoot-down, they say. Australia's working with the Netherlands and Malaysia to investigate the crash and they demanded that Russia do more to stop that fighting that's been preventing them from doing that.

SIMON: NPR's Corey Flintoff in Moscow, thanks so much.

FLINTOFF: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.