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Russian troops continue push into east and south Ukraine

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

As Russia's war on Ukraine continues into its third month, heavy fighting is concentrated in the east and south of Ukraine as Russian forces try to utilize their advantage in heavy weaponry like rocket-propelled grenades and artillery. Meanwhile, Ukrainian soldiers are training on new heavy weapons from NATO allies that they say will be crucial to their efforts to halt the Russian advance. NPR's Frank Langfitt is in Kyiv, and he's with us now to tell us more. Frank, welcome. Thank you for joining us.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hi, Michel.

MARTIN: So first, could you just start off by telling us about the situation now on the eastern and southern fronts?

LANGFITT: Yeah. I mean, there've been no great changes today. The Ukrainian defense ministry says some small towns and villages are changing hands. Down in the south, Russia is pounding away with artillery around the port city of Mykolaiv. And eventually, what it hopes to do, of course, is take control of the Black Sea Coast. But if you talk to the United States and the U.K. defense officials, they say that right now, Russia simply doesn't have the firepower to do that in the south. But Roman Kostenko (ph) - he's a Ukrainian colonel working down there in the south - he says they're really feeling the pressure from the Russians right now.

ROMAN KOSTENKO: (Through interpreter) I'm going to the front almost every day. We are barely holding them back. If we don't receive the help our partners promised us in time, it will be very difficult - in particular artillery because the Russians have an advantage in artillery.

MARTIN: Well, speaking of that, the U.S. is sending 90 Howitzers to the Ukrainian military. Do we have any sense of the status of those weapons?

LANGFITT: Well, at least half were already in the country. And I was asking the defense ministry here in Kyiv if any have gotten to the front lines, and they said this is sort of just too sensitive. They don't want to talk about it. They're, of course, very grateful for these weapons. It's important to remember that Howitzers are, you know, very different than the Soviet-style weapons that the Ukrainians have relied on for many, many years. There is a need for training. U.S. has already trained about 50 Ukrainian soldiers on these weapons - training more right now.

And the Ukrainian military is shifting now - this is, I think, really important, Michel - from Soviet-style weapons to native-grade weapons and becoming increasingly what they call interoperable with NATO, which is they're able to work, you know, pretty seamlessly with NATO over time. And right now, they're helping defend NATO's eastern flank and increasingly sounding more and more like a part of NATO, in a sense, which, of course, is the exact opposite of what President Putin wanted. And this is how Colonel Kostenko put it earlier this week.

KOSTENKO: (Through interpreter) The Ukrainian army is probably the only army in the world which has fought such a strong enemy. In the future, we will pass on our experience to our partners on how to fight against the Russian Federation.

LANGFITT: And, of course, Ukraine is not going to join NATO any time soon. But if you look at what's happening on the ground, NATO weapons, NATO training right now, you know, the Ukrainian army is the vanguard protecting Eastern Europe from the Russians.

MARTIN: So you know, Frank, to that end, the U.S. and other NATO allies have poured weapons into Ukraine in the last several months. Does this indicate a long-term commitment to arming the country?

LANGFITT: It increasingly seems like it, Michel. On Friday, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, he called Ukraine a highly valued partner and said NATO's prepared to arm the country in a conflict that he sees as lasting - potentially lasting years.

MARTIN: So, Frank, you've been reporting from Europe for some time now, and you've been traveling around Europe talking to analysts and government officials. How do they see this war ending?

LANGFITT: Not quickly. The consensus of people that I've been talking to just in the last week or so is, you know, this is a new phase of the war after the Russians were unable to topple the Ukrainian government. They're now in a phase of just taking as much territory they can. And people see this as very political and domestic for Putin wants to be able to present these as big wins at home and, frankly, to save face. The big problem, of course, is analysts here say there's no Ukrainian leader that would be willing to cede territory to Russia, given the, you know, very impressive performance of the Ukrainian army and the terrible suffering of many Ukrainian people in this war. So it's expected to grind on, at a minimum, frankly, for months.

MARTIN: That was NPR's Frank Langfitt in Kyiv. Frank, thank you.

LANGFITT: Good to talk, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.