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After 2 years of war in Ukraine, 6 cities hold out hope

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Today, Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine enters its third year. And on this anniversary of the start of the war, it's worth stepping back and noting that neither Russia nor Ukraine has made progress on its goals, despite hundreds of thousands of casualties on both sides. Russia has failed to occupy all of Ukraine, and Ukraine has failed to retake all of the land occupied by Russian forces. But as Ukraine runs low on ammunition and weapons, with resupplies from the United States and other allies more in doubt than ever, Russia is going on the offensive in Ukraine's east. Joining us to discuss this is NPR's Kyiv correspondent, Joanna Kakissis. Hey, Joanna.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Hey, Scott.

DETROW: So tell us how Ukrainians are observing this anniversary today.

KAKISSIS: So, Scott, it's a somber day. Ukrainians are very proud that their country is still defending itself against a much larger enemy with a much larger arsenal. But there is just a sense of exhaustion and loss, and you could really sense that at a rally in central Kyiv today, where many were demonstrating to highlight the cases of thousands of Ukrainian prisoners of war. Here's Anton Tarasov (ph). He's a 49-year-old soldier who was in a cave on a short break from the frontlines to see his elderly mom.

ANTON TARASOV: I'm not even sure to who this is more difficult, to the civilians or to the soldiers. Like my mom, for example - she's 80 years old. But we are stronger than Russians. We love freedom too much. We love it more than they love war, so we will win.

KAKISSIS: And that's the sentiment of most Ukrainians we spoke to. But we also met some who were much more pessimistic, like Larysa Dovhoshyiia. She's 56, and she was at the rally, too. Her brother is a prisoner of war, and she says that the war has worn down Ukrainian unity. She's heard here through an interpreter.

LARYSA DOVHOSHYIIA: (Through interpreter) People were united. They were of one mind, and now people are divided. I go to rallies and give what I can to the armed forces, but some people don't support them.

KAKISSIS: She says some Ukrainians question whether the fight is worth the loss of so many lives, and that's a big concern for Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as this war drags on.

DETROW: Let's talk about Zelenskyy for a moment because communication has been such a strong suit of his throughout this war. How is he managing expectations for the coming year, which, again, is going to be the third year his country's at war?

KAKISSIS: That's right. Well, today he tried to project strength and give Ukrainians a sense that their Western allies still have their back. He held this press conference today with the leaders of Canada, Italy and the European Union. Here's European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen promising that Europe will continue to stand by Ukraine.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

URSULA VON DER LEYEN: With more financial support, more ammunition, more training for your troops, more air defenses and more investment in Europe's and Ukraine's defense industries.

KAKISSIS: Now, President Biden wasn't there, but he released a statement saying that the U.S. remains committed to holding Russia accountable for its aggression and also to providing critical assistance to Ukraine.

DETROW: How do Ukrainians feel about Western allies at this point?

KAKISSIS: Well, Scott, every Ukrainian I've met is grateful for any assistance from the West, especially military assistance. Their argument is, you give us the weapons, and we will do the rest. But, you know, Ukrainian soldiers are now running very low on weapons, especially ammunition, and it's having an effect on the battlefield. For example, a week ago, the Ukrainians lost the strategic town of Avdiivka in the east after a battle that took months, and the Russians outgunned them. They repeatedly dropped bombs. The Ukrainians struggled to respond, and so they had to pull out. And that's given Russians the momentum in the land war. They're advancing along several points on the front line now.

DETROW: Anything positive to say about Ukraine on the battlefield at this point?

KAKISSIS: You know, yeah, surprisingly there is. The Ukrainians have managed to push back the Russian navy from parts of the Black Sea. They've used sea drones to do that. It's made the Black Sea a lot safer to transport Ukrainian agricultural exports, which Ukraine says are not back at pre-war levels. Zelenskyy says his main priority for 2024 is to make sure Ukraine procures more weapons, especially long-range missiles that can hit Russian military targets. And he says that needs to happen quickly because Russia's arms production is increasing, and the Kremlin is getting additional weapons from North Korea, according to Western military officials.

DETROW: That's NPR's Joanna Kakissis from Kyiv. Thanks so much.

KAKISSIS: You're welcome, Scott. 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.

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.