Russian officials have said a major offensive is coming
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Russian officials now say they've begun a new phase of their invasion of Ukraine, and Ukrainian officials are reporting fierce clashes across a wide front in their country's east and south. NPR's Brian Mann is in the southern city of Odesa. Hi, Brian.
BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.
SHAPIRO: We had been hearing for days now that a major Russian offensive was coming. Is this it?
MANN: Yeah, things are intensifying, with a lot more violence across the country. Russia's foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, gave an interview where he said a new stage of this operation is beginning. He described this as a very important moment.
But it's not actually clear, Ari, that the Russians have launched their big push yet. A senior U.S. defense official told NPR today this still appears to be the prelude, kind of a strategic ramp-up that might lead to an even larger offensive. This is a moment though when there is significant fighting underway over hundreds of kilometers, involving tanks, artillery, soldiers. A spokesman for the Ukrainian military, Colonel Oleksandr Motuzyanyk, described the situation through an interpreter this afternoon.
OLEKSANDR MOTUZYANYK: (Through interpreter) We see intensification of offensive actions of the Russian army along the whole frontline in the east of Ukraine.
MANN: So a dangerous moment. Ukrainian officials said today they also expect bombing to continue across much of the country.
SHAPIRO: And what impact is this having on Ukrainians in those cities that are being hit?
MANN: Ukrainian officials say they're holding the line. We're not seeing Russians break through anywhere, though a Ukrainian official has confirmed one town - Kreminna, in eastern Ukraine - has been seized by Russian troops. The Russians are also just causing a lot of havoc, Ari, with these strikes.
I spoke this afternoon with Dmytro Pletenchuk. He's a military officer I met a few days ago when I visited Mykolaiv. That's a city near the front lines here in the south - a city that was shelled again heavily last night.
DMYTRO PLETENCHUK: (Speaking Ukrainian).
MANN: He told me they hit electricity lines and other infrastructure in Mykolaiv. He believes Russians are trying to create a humanitarian crisis in these cities that will then bog down and distract the Ukrainian army. He also told me officials believe as many as half of the people in Mykolaiv are still in the city. If that's accurate, that's roughly a quarter-million people living there without water or reliable electricity with those Russian troops fighting just 20 miles away.
SHAPIRO: What are those civilians supposed to do now?
MANN: Yeah. Some people we spoke to in Mykolaiv say they plan to hunker down and shelter in place, try to ride this out. Obviously, that's a very, very dangerous thing to do. Some people are now trying to get out.
My colleague Tim Mak spoke yesterday with Sergei Protsenko. He's a restaurant owner who fled the city of Kherson with his family when fighting broke out there.
SERGEI PROTSENKO: (Speaking Ukrainian).
MANN: He told NPR that as he moved through Russian-occupied territory, Russian soldiers forced him out of his vehicle and made him strip to show that he didn't have any Ukrainian military tattoos. After that, they did let him and his family go. He said it felt sort of magical when they made it safely to the first Ukrainian checkpoint. But as this invasion pushes forward, a lot of civilians in these cities won't be so lucky.
SHAPIRO: More than 10 million people have already been displaced by this war. As you say, a lot of people are not fleeing. Why not?
MANN: It's a question we've asked over and over, Ari. You know, why do people stay when the war is so close? A lot of them are elderly or have disabilities, or they say they're too poor to leave. Others have businesses and homes. You know, their whole lives are in these places. So they're confronted with these terrifying choices. They can join that massive wave of refugees and displaced people, or they can try to survive in their communities, in their homes, where things, yes, are dangerous, but they also feel familiar.
SHAPIRO: Ukraine is such a large country. You are in Odesa, where there's not violence right now. What is the mood there?
MANN: You know, Ukrainians we've been talking to today, they're obviously watching this escalation with a lot of horror. They're terrified for their sons and their husbands who are dug in fighting against the Russians. But morale is really high. You know, people I talk to say over and over they think they can stop Russia.
There is some reason for optimism. You know, Ukraine's army did stop the Russians once. But military experts I've spoken to over the last week say this phase of the war is going to be a much harder test for this country and for Ukraine's military.
SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Brian Mann in Odesa, Ukraine. Thank you.
MANN: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.