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'WSJ' reporter describes the looting and killing of civilians in southern Ukraine

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In the last three weeks, we've heard a lot about southern Ukraine. That's where invading Russian forces made big early gains and are now laying siege to or fully occupying cities and towns there. One of those cities is Mariupol. The city council says a Russian plane dropped a bomb on the drama theater today where hundreds of residents have taken refuge. Russia is denying the attack. There was no immediate word on casualties.

We wanted to hear more from southern Ukraine, so we reached out to Wall Street Journal reporter Yaroslav Trofimov. Welcome.

YAROSLAV TROFIMOV: Thank you. Great to be on the show.

CHANG: It's great to have you. I want to first talk about what you've been hearing about the behavior of the Russian troops occupying parts of southern Ukraine now. Your reporting describes looting and killing of civilians, targeting of civilians. Can you tell us more about what you've been learning?

TROFINOV: Well, we've been driving around southern Ukraine for the last several days. We've been both in the areas where refugees are coming in from occupied areas, but we've also been to a town that used to be held by the Russians and was freed by Ukrainian forces last week. In all of these areas, we hear that the Russian forces don't really have much of a logistical help. So they are hungry. They're running out of fuel. And they basically live off the land.

So they come at your houses, evict the villagers in many places. They steal their food. They steal their valuables. And there are lots of extrajudicial killings in places. That's in the rural areas. In the cities, they're somewhat better behaved, just because in the cities there is mobile phone coverage. There are pro-Ukrainian protests that are filming their behavior. So it's very - two different patterns of behavior...

CHANG: Right.

TROFINOV: ...Depending on whether the spotlight is on them or isn't.

CHANG: Well, in places where Russian forces have claimed control, how have they been dealing with local political leadership?

TROFINOV: So it really depends on the areas. The bellwether was the city of Melitopol, on the coast of the Azov Sea in the southern Ukraine. So when the Russian forces came in, the local mayor was evicted from his office.

CHANG: Right.

TROFINOV: Then he was picked up and detained and was held for several days. But then today, he was freed, thanks to the intervention of foreign leaders such as the French president and the German chancellor, who spoke with President Putin directly about this case.

So in the bigger cities, still, the Russians have been behaving with restraint because they are hoping that the population doesn't turn against them. They don't really want an insurgency in the cities. The behavior in the villages is very different because nobody is watching them there. And so they are seeing looting and killing and just sort of a reign of terror.

CHANG: Well, as far as Kherson goes, we understand that the Ukrainian foreign minister claimed that Russian forces are preparing to hold a referendum to proclaim a, quote, "people's republic." This seems to be very much like the playbook that Russia employed in the Eastern Donbas region.

TROFINOV: Right. So in 2014, when Russia was trying to ferment pro-Russian movements all over Ukraine, they were pushing this model of the people's republics not just in Donetsk and Lugansk, where they succeeded, but also in other areas of Ukraine - Kharkiv, Odessa and Kherson - where they really didn't get much traction and popular support. So the Russians were hoping that this time, once the Russian forces are in there, they would have a degree of support from some parts of the local elites.

That didn't really happen. Nobody wants this Russian forces. The Russian forces came to destroy the cities. They came with violence. And there's virtually zero support for the Russian military, even among the people who used to be sympathetic to Russia, including the mayors of cities like Kharkiv and Odessa in Ukraine that are now leading the resistance but just a few years ago were speaking up for closer ties with Moscow. And, you know, the Russian military brought in so-called humanitarian aid, put them out on the main square, and nobody showed up because nobody wanted to be seen taking things from the Russians.

CHANG: Yaroslav Trofimov, chief foreign affairs correspondent for The Wall Street Journal who joined us from Odessa, Ukraine, thank you very much for taking the time to speak with us today, and stay safe.

TROFINOV: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOEY FEHRENBACH'S "INDIGO ROAD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.