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Russia closes in on a city in eastern Ukraine after 100 days of war

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

As Russia's invasion of Ukraine reaches into its second 100 days, a major city in the east is under threat. Fighting has intensified around the city of Severodonetsk. We're joined now from Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, by NPR's Peter Granitz. Peter, thanks for being with us.

PETER GRANITZ, BYLINE: Good morning.

SIMON: Peter, Russia withdrew from Kyiv in March and began to focus on eastern Ukraine. Where is this fighting taking place, and who seems to have the upper hand?

GRANITZ: Well, the fighting is focused on the city you just said, Severodonetsk. That is the most significant city on the front lines that Russia does not yet control. Scott, if you look at a map of the territory within Ukraine that is now under Russian control, it looks like a backwards C - like a backwards letter C - and right in the middle of that open space is Severodonetsk. We should say it is contested, but it's unclear how much of the city Ukrainian forces still actually hold onto. An official there yesterday said that they recaptured some territory of the city. We don't know how much, and it's almost impossible to verify. And, frankly, we don't know how significant it is because Russia is overpowering the Ukrainians there, and it's likely the city falls, and a lot of people fear that could be coming in the coming days.

SIMON: What is the potential strategic significance of Severodonetsk?

GRANITZ: Well, the significance is that it's more territory for Russia. They are diving deeper into Ukraine. It is closer to the west of the country. Remember that Russian President Vladimir Putin recognized two regions in the Donbas, in eastern Ukraine, as independent republics. That was to justify sending his forces into Ukraine in February. Capturing Severodonetsk - it just gets him a little bit closer to controlling that entire territory. The city is at the western edge of the territory Vladimir Putin would like to control, but we should say there's still a lot of land in the east that is still being contested.

SIMON: Is it considered likely the Russians will continue the advance further west?

GRANITZ: Well, if they want to do that and fully capture the Donbas, they're going to need to cross a river. That is logistically hard, it is dangerous and it's proven difficult for them already. Russian forces tried to cross a river in eastern Ukraine some time back, and Ukrainian forces were ready. They had the area gridded out, ready for them. And when Russians tried to cross the river with floating pontoons, the Ukrainian forces shelled them, and it was a big loss for Russia. Several hundred Russian casualties were reported in that attack alone, and the Russians lost a lot of military equipment, as well.

SIMON: Let me ask you, too, to look at the broader context of the conflict. Is anyone winning? Is that even possible?

GRANITZ: Scott, it's a good question, and it's got an unclear answer because nobody is entirely sure what winning means, right? Ukrainians say they don't want to cede any land to Russia in any kind of settlement, and that includes the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia seized eight years ago. Already, Vladimir Putin has changed his goals from toppling the government here in Kyiv to just controlling the Donbas. But, Scott, when you walk around in the west and here in the capital, there are, like, very few signs of the war. There are so many people who have come back to Kyiv that it's almost impossible to hear the air raid sirens. Those are warnings that we should say that people mostly ignore. But out east, Ukraine is suffering significant losses, both in terms of land and in terms of people. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said this week that as many as a hundred soldiers are dying every day. On top of that, another 500 are getting wounded. They are just getting pummeled by Russian artillery, and that's affecting not just the numbers of the forces and the land they control but also military morale, as well.

SIMON: NPR's Peter Granitz, thanks so much.

GRANITZ: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.