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Ukrainian troops keep up their counteroffensives in the country's south and east

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Ukrainian troops are engaged in counteroffensives in the country's south and east to reclaim more towns and villages occupied by Russian forces.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

That despite Moscow's recent illegal annexation of the areas. One strategically important town that was recently retaken in the east is Lyman in the region of Donetsk. The Ukrainian army had nearly encircled thousands of Russian troops there and then drove them out over the weekend.

FADEL: NPR's Kat Lonsdorf was in Lyman yesterday, and she joins us now from Dnieper, Ukraine. Good morning.

KAT LONSDORF, BYLINE: Hey, good morning.

FADEL: So, Kat, tell us what people you met in Lyman were saying about what it's been like for them.

LONSDORF: Yeah, people were really on edge. I will say a lot of people didn't want to talk on the record. You know, they were worried that the Russians might come back. The fighting is still really close. The towns around there were just completely destroyed. One man I talked to said, you know, this just isn't the time to say anything. And another woman laughed a little and said, first we have one group in charge and then another, before shrugging and hopping on her bike. But I did talk to one man, 33-year-old Mikhail (ph). He was out riding his motorbike and stopped to talk. And he told me, sure, it's good that the Ukrainians are back in charge, but what they really need is electricity. They've been without it for seven months, he said. And it means that they haven't had any access to any information. So I asked him, did he know that Russian President Vladimir Putin had declared Lyman part of the Russian Federation last week?

MIKHAIL: (Through interpreter) No, I haven't heard that.

LONSDORF: You didn't hear that?

HANNAH: (Non-English language spoken).

LONSDORF: You can hear my interpreter, Hannah (ph), there. And you can also hear how surprised Mikhail is. He had no idea. He said he hadn't seen any referendum voting. He hadn't even heard about it.

FADEL: Wow, so people are really living in the dark. Now, you've said that people are worried the Russian forces could come back. Is that a real concern here?

LONSDORF: I've heard that a lot in these recently liberated places. But this area especially - you know, it was taken by Russia in 2014, and then the Ukrainian army won it back, only to be taken again in 2020, won back again. You know, and of all the liberated places I've been in, both north of Kyiv and around Kharkiv a few weeks ago, this area and Donetsk seem to have the most signs of Russian influence. I saw copies of the local Russian language propaganda newspaper sitting around. There was a bus stop painted with the Russian flag, lots and lots of Russian tanks and armored vehicles left behind, and the fighting is still really close. While I was talking to Mikhail, I was in the middle of asking him a question, and there was this big explosion.

Did you live here in 2014 when...

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

LONSDORF: And people around us started ducking, running into their homes. And he just started up his motorbike and said, you know what? I should probably go. And then he looked at me and said, you see? This is how we live. And then he drove off.

FADEL: Wow, this is how we live. Well, I'm glad you're safe. But for now, the Ukrainians are making headway in both the east and the south. What are we watching for next?

LONSDORF: Well, Putin has been trying to mobilize hundreds of thousands of Russian reinforcements who are supposed to be making their way to the front lines soon. Ukraine is trying to take back as much land as they can before that happens, if that happens. We've been hearing about extremely low morale in those who have been mobilized for Russia and just poor preparation, lack of equipment. And Putin is still saber-rattling about the use of nuclear weapons if Ukraine attacks what he sees as Russian soil, which is how he considers these four regions of Ukraine. Nobody really knows if he's bluffing. And meanwhile, the Ukrainians are just continuing to take more land.

FADEL: NPR's Kat Lonsdorf in Dnieper, Ukraine. Thanks, Kat.

LONSDORF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
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