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Russia presses a major offensive in eastern Ukraine as other areas regain normalcy

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

When Russia invaded Ukraine, it attacked on three fronts - from the north, from the south and from the east. Ukraine, as we know, fought back hard. Russia scaled back, but it is still pressing a major offensive in eastern Ukraine. Meanwhile, head west to places like Kyiv, and life is regaining a sense of normalcy. We're going to talk through these dual realities with NPR's Ryan Lucas, who is in eastern Ukraine, and NPR's Greg Myre, who is in the capital, in Kyiv. Hi, you two.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Hi there.

KELLY: All right, Ryan, you begin. Let's start in the east. Where are you in Donbas? And just paint me a picture. What does it look like?

LUCAS: So I am in a town called Pokrovsk, and it's not that far from the main fighting front of Donbas at this point in time. A lot of civilians here have already fled west. The big Soviet-era apartment blocks in Pokrovsk are pretty much dark at night. You only see one or two windows with lights on in any given building. Most shops are closed. Some towns have sporadic power and gas and water. In others, all three of those have been cut.

And the war is really an ever-present thing here, not in an abstract way. We were woken up our first morning here by a missile strike that shook the windows and doors in our hotel room. And as you drive further east on the roads closer to the front, pretty much all of the traffic is military - so tanks, armored personnel carriers, troop carriers, stuff like that. And in towns like Bakhmut and Kramatorsk, you hear the heavy boom of outgoing and incoming artillery and rockets pretty much all day and all night.

KELLY: All right. So artillery and rockets all day, all night - that's the soundtrack in the east. Greg, where you are in the capital, what's life like there? - because Russian troops got very close but then pulled back, and that was weeks ago.

MYRE: Yes, that's absolutely true. So it's a completely different scene from a couple months ago, when the capital was really in lockdown mode. We're having some beautiful spring days. The parks are overflowing with families. Cafes are packed. And, yes, we do see some long lines here. But now most people are waiting for ice cream. There are a few signs of war. Soldiers are mixed in with the civilian crowds. We still get the occasional air raid sirens, which are widely ignored. And, you know, Mary Louise, almost all countries at war do have these dual realities - places like Eastern Ukraine, where Ryan is, 400 miles from the capital, where people are fearing for their lives and losing their lives, and places like Kyiv, where people are relatively safe and just trying to get on with their lives.

KELLY: It's so striking. It sounds in a strange way like it's back somewhat like the way things were when I was there right before the war - late January, start of February. Kyiv felt very normal - cafes packed. People were out ice skating. And then when we went further east, same thing. You heard gunfire. You saw military vehicles on the road. I am curious. Greg, just take me slightly outside Kyiv to the suburbs that we heard so much about, like Bucha, where there was just absolute devastation. What does that look like today?

MYRE: Yeah. There's a remarkable cleanup going on, and the rebuilding is well underway. I mean, you're just about 20 minutes or so outside of Kyiv when you go there. And I'm sure many of our listeners recall the photos of all those burned-out Russian tanks, the mangled civilian cars.

KELLY: The bodies in the streets. Yeah.

MYRE: Absolutely, absolutely - several hundred by Ukrainian count. This is all gone now. We drove around the town on the completely cleaned-up streets. All those burned-out vehicles have been towed to junkyards outside Bucha. The chewed-up streets have all been repaired.

KELLY: We have also seen pictures, though, of giant apartment blocks bombed out, destroyed. Where are people living?

MYRE: Yeah. The housing shortage is definitely the biggest problem, but there is some progress. Poland has donated prefabricated dormitories. They're being set up on school playgrounds, in parking lots. People should be moving in soon. At city hall, my NPR colleague Julian Hayda and I met Jana Rehovich (ph). She's 55, and her home was damaged. She's staying at the home of relatives who went abroad, and she considers herself lucky.

JANA REHOVICH: (Through interpreter) I think no matter what the situation is, I will not end up on the street even if that means we will be living in tight quarters, uncomfortable quarters. At the very least we have family that we're able to depend on, and there are most certainly people here in the city who are in a worse situation.

MYRE: So I don't want to overstate the recovery. Many parts of Bucha, as we've seen, are completely gutted. But it's very much coming back to life. And it has a distinctive soundtrack - the pounding of hammers, screeching buzzsaws and the grinding of power drills.

KELLY: It's a very different soundtrack to what I was hearing in the east even before the war. Ryan, what - just the state of the war - what is the state of play on the battlefield where you are?

LUCAS: Well, it's not great for Ukraine, frankly. We talked to several soldiers who said that they had received just two weeks of training before being sent out east here to fight. They say that they're ill-equipped and ill-prepared for the battle. They do acknowledge that that's not the case with every Ukrainian unit. Of course, some are well-equipped and well-trained. But one constant refrain that we heard from fighters out here is that Ukraine needs more heavy weapons. They say the Russians are following classic tactics out here. They're pounding an area with artillery and rockets and airstrikes and then moving forward with tanks and troops. And then they do that all over again.

And the Ukrainians say that they have very little heavy weaponry to hit back with. The Howitzers that the U.S. have provided are helping, but they need more of them, the Ukrainians say. And now the White House may announce as soon as tomorrow that it's going to provide longer-range rocket systems for the Ukrainians, which is something that they've been begging for. But Ukrainians say time is of the essence. The clock is really taking out here.

KELLY: What about just the calculation for civilians, Ryan, the - should I stay? Do I want to fight for my country, or do I go try to get my family to safety? What are you hearing from people?

LUCAS: Well, a lot of people here have left. For those who have stayed, though, things are getting increasingly difficult. One woman that we talked to only gave her first name, Olga (ph). She said much of Severodonetsk is destroyed. She had just fled the city. But like many people here, she seemed to have this ability to deal with these horrible circumstances and things that are going on and yet retain her sense of humor. She was sitting in the back of an ambulance, waiting to be evacuated when we were talking to her. And the air raid siren was wailing in the background. And as it turns out, her 69th birthday was the following day. And she teased us about it. She said, where's my cake? Why don't you have chocolate? She just laughed.

KELLY: Yeah.

LUCAS: But at the same time, there's this immense amount of sadness and grief. And one thing that has stuck with me was, as we were saying goodbye to her, she started tearing up, thinking about her home and her city, which she doesn't know when she'll ever see again. And she repeated this one line over and over.

OLGA: (Speaking Ukrainian).

OLGA: On every street, she says, there were roses and chestnut trees, roses and chestnut trees.

KELLY: Oh, what a beautiful and what a heartbreaking image. That is Ryan Lucas reporting in eastern Ukraine and NPR's Greg Myre reporting in Kyiv. Thank you to both of you.

LUCAS: Thank you.

MYRE: Thanks, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.
Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.