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Former Soviet Republics Monitor Trump's Evolving Foreign Policy

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

President Trump is seeking a cozier relationship with Russia's president, Vladimir Putin. And there's been an expectation that that could change the power dynamic in Russia's neighborhood. Related or not, fighting has intensified between Russian-backed separatists and government troops in Ukraine.

NATALIA ANTELAVA: There has been a complete breakdown of ceasefire. We just had reports of fresh overnight shelling in the city of Avdiivka along the frontline. And there's been - there have been casualties, about 10 people, as far as we know, dead but also a complete humanitarian breakdown - no running water, no electricity, no heating and all of this happening in, like, zero-degree temperatures.

GREENE: That is the voice of journalist Natalia Antelava. She has reported extensively from former Soviet republics, including Georgia where we reached her this morning on Skype. She says people are nervous in countries like this. And she says many see a tie between Trump's rise and the new violence in Ukraine.

ANTELAVA: The fighting broke out just a day after Putin and Trump had their first phone call, which is very much perceived as Putin testing Trump, testing the White House. And if that's the case, then certainly Trump has passed the test because the response has been very, very weak. I mean, it's interesting because the Ukrainians have always been very disillusioned, disappointed in President Obama whose response to the Ukraine conflict was always seen as very weak and inadequate. But, God, that was harsh compared to the statement that we got about the latest fighting, which didn't even mention Russia.

At the same time, on the other hand, there is another theory that this is something that's floating in the Russian media and that's something that is being pushed by the Russian-backed rebels. And they're all saying that, no, it's not us. It's the Ukrainians who are trying to provoke us because they're so terrified of losing American support under Trump administration.

GREENE: Oh, that's interesting. So some people are saying that Ukraine is so nervous that they feel this need to act. I mean, how nervous are countries like Ukraine, like Georgia, which not so long ago were looking to try and join the EU, join NATO? I mean, those institutions were really a beacon of hope for them, right?

ANTELAVA: Absolutely. Across the entire former Soviet space, I think there is a great deal of nervousness about the Trump administration. And I think there is a real sense that all bets are off, right? And I think important thing to remember is that places like Georgia, for example, or, to a lesser degree, Ukraine - they have built their entire - not just foreign policy but also the domestic policy around the idea of breaking away with the Soviet past, becoming more democratic. And they've have always had that kind of carrot of NATO being dangled in front of them. That has been the driving force of political progress and transformation. And now that's completely up in the air, and there is a great deal of anxiety.

GREENE: Well, Natalia, is there any strain of thought that perhaps if Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin get closer, it could ease some of the tensions that have existed in the region and some of these countries might be able to live more peacefully without so much worry about Russia?

ANTELAVA: Among Russia's neighbors, no because I think the countries know all too well what it is like to have Russia as a hostile member. So the region being more peaceful will come, many here believe, on the - with the price of it being less democratic. That means a political system that is much more like Russia's, you know. So I think, ultimately, the fear here is that a restoration of the Soviet Union, which is pretty much Vladimir Putin's stated goal in life - right? He - this is a man who says that the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century was the collapse of the Soviet Union. And he makes no secret of wanting to restore it in some new shape or form.

You know, someone that I know recently commented - well, I was born in the Soviet Union. I never thought I would die in one. And I think among the people who have, for the last 25 years of independence, have banked on kind of Western values - democracy, liberalism, free market economy, all of that - somehow, there is a real fear that all of that will just disappear.

GREENE: OK. Natalia Antelava runs the website Coda Story. And she has been following reaction among Russia's neighbors to Donald Trump's foreign policy.

Natalia, thank you.

ANTELAVA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.