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Russian troops press toward Ukraine's second largest city, Kharkiv

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in the capital of Ukraine today. The unannounced visit to Kyiv is the first by a senior U.S. official since Congress passed a $60 billion aid package last month.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And it comes as Ukrainian troops are struggling to push back a new Russian offensive along the northeastern border, not far from the country's second-largest city, Kharkiv. Meanwhile, Ukraine, which already has a shortage of soldiers, is moving troops from other parts of the front line to respond.

FADEL: With me now to discuss the latest is NPR's Ukraine correspondent, Joanna Kakissis, in Kyiv. Good morning.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: Joanna, let's start with the latest in this war. How did Russia break through Ukraine's defenses here?

KAKISSIS: So Leila, Ukraine has been warning for weeks that Russia was massing troops along this part of the border as part of a new offensive. And then, this past Friday, Russian troops stormed into northeastern Ukraine in two formations - toward the city of Kharkiv and a town called Vovchansk. Thousands of Ukrainians have since fled. The Russians moved quickly through a border area called the gray zone - it's a contested area between the two countries - and they say they have captured several small villages there. Some soldiers told Ukrainian media that the area was not well-fortified. We did speak to a soldier named Dima Yermolovich (ph), who is serving in the area. Here, he describes the challenges.

DIMA YERMOLOVICH: (Through interpreter) It is really hard to keep back Russians without enough equipment, being as outnumbered as we are, as they attack again and again with tanks and infantry, with troops that really prepared for this assault.

FADEL: So soldiers feel outnumbered. They're not well-equipped. What about civilians? What have the past few days been like for them?

KAKISSIS: Well, it's been very scary and chaotic, based on what we've been hearing from emergency workers trying to get the civilians out. We spoke to Grigory Cherban (ph). He's a local volunteer helping to evacuate people from the town of Vovchansk. And that town is just five miles from the Russian border, and he described how quickly conditions deteriorated there.

GRIGORY CHERBAN: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: So he's saying that, in the few hours he was in the area, the Russians dropped at least three guided aerial bombs which are highly destructive. And then, after that, there was constant gunfire. Suddenly, the requests for evacuations increased dramatically. And, you know, this town - Vovchansk - used to have a population of 17,000. Only a few hundred people remain there. Most of them are elderly. Rescue workers said they have refused to leave. The townspeople have already lived through one recent Russian occupation for the first few months of 2022, until Ukrainians managed to regain control later that year, and now this town faces another occupation.

FADEL: So how does this offensive affect Ukraine's overall position on the battlefield?

KAKISSIS: Well, this means that Ukraine is now moving troops to this part of the front, and Ukraine does not have troops to spare. They're also defending the eastern part of the front line, where the Russians are closing in on key towns there. There is a new conscription law that goes into effect this month, but it will be several months before new soldiers are drafted and trained, so this is something that is still going into effect.

FADEL: And really quickly, Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Kyiv - what message is he carrying with him?

KAKISSIS: He's meeting with top officials, including Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and he's here to say that the U.S. continues to stand by Ukraine.

FADEL: NPR's Joanna Kakissis, in Kyiv. Thank you, Joanna.

KAKISSIS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.

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