MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine appealed, today, for military help from Russia. They say they're losing their battles with Ukrainian government troops. Heavy fighting raged near the city of Luhansk, and the rebels' top military leader said his forces might have to retreat. NATO says it's seeing signs of a new Russian troop buildup near Ukraine's eastern border - this is despite Kiev's proposal for a unilateral cease-fire. In a few minutes, we'll talk with Germany's defense minister about her views on Ukraine and relations with Russia. First, NPR's Corey Flintoff reports from the rebel-held city of Donetsk.
COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: NATO Chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said, today, that the alliance is seeing at least a few thousand more Russian troops deployed near the Ukrainian border. Russia's Defense Ministry is not commenting on the report. The latest moves come just days after Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko outlined a new cease-fire offer to allow separatists to lay down their arms. The rebels rejected the offer. Separatist leader Denis Pushilin told Russian television that Poroshenko's offers have proven hollow in the past, including one to establish humanitarian corridors for refugees.
DENIS PUSHILIN: (Through translator) These are crowd-pleasing statements of Mr. Poroshenko that have nothing behind them. No humanitarian corridors were created. In fact, the government shelled buses with women and children.
FLINTOFF: Pushilin said the cease-fire plan was nothing but a ploy to get the rebels to disarm.
MARK ETHERINGTON: I think what we're seeing is an atmosphere in which there is very, very little trust.
FLINTOFF: Mark Etherington, one of the leaders of a monitoring group from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, says that doesn't mean there's no chance of a peaceful solution.
ETHERINGTON: I think it's fair to say that there is, in many places, an openness for negotiation.
FLINTOFF: One problem, Etherington says, is that Poroshenko's key conditions are nonstarters for the rebels - the requirement that they lay down their arms and withdraw from the government buildings they have occupied. It's not only the pro-Russian separatists that don't like the cease-fire proposal. Evgeniy Shibalov is a pro-Ukrainian journalist and refugee activist, who says the offer will only prolong the crisis, rather than driving the rebels from their positions.
EVGENIY SHIBALOV: It's a way to make this conflict longer. So I don't think it's a good decision, and it was not executed because today in early morning the gun battles happened again.
FLINTOFF: Shibalov said he wasn't aware that Poroshenko has not actually declared the cease-fire because the government has done a poor job of explaining its actions to people in eastern Ukraine. Etherington says the humanitarian situation in the region is deteriorating, and that more people are being displaced by the fighting. Etherington's own monitoring group has 18 members who were abducted three weeks ago and are still being held by armed groups.
ETHERINGTON: What I can tell you is that we are in touch with them and that they are well. But you'll understand, of course, given the sensitivity, that I can't tell you very much more than that.
FLINTOFF: He says the crisis in the East won't get easier to resolve as time goes on, and that options are closing off with every passing day. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Donetsk. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.