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Kyiv hit by Russian airstrikes as information from Mariupol is throttled

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Ukraine's war is now concentrated near its eastern border. And that is where the country's president appeared over the weekend. Video released today shows Volodymyr Zelenskyy visiting front-line troops. He's wearing his signature green army T-shirt. He urges his troops to win, though, not at any cost. He asked them to stay safe when they can, since the land means nothing without its people. NPR's Greg Myre is following the visit.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Obviously, this was not announced in advanced. He traveled to near the town of Severodonetsk. That's very much within Russian artillery range. This city has been the scene of the heaviest fighting the past couple of weeks. So he was just a few miles west of those troops. But also, Russian troops were pretty close in the north and the south. He was really in the thick of it. He met with troops. He stopped in two other towns as well. He met civilians also and said, quote, "I'm proud of everybody I met, everyone I shook hands with, everyone whom I connected with." Now, this is hundreds of miles from the capital, Kyiv. And he presumably traveled by road - really reflects the critical phase of fighting in the east right now.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about that. What makes this a critical phase?

MYRE: Well, the Russians have really concentrated their firepower in - not only in the east, but in a pretty particular part of the east, around this city of Severodonetsk. The Russians have been advancing. And just a few days ago, even the Ukrainian leaders were saying Russia had about 80% of this city. It appeared likely to fall over the weekend. Ukraine said they pushed back, recaptured part of the city. And even just before we spoke this morning here, the political leader came out and said, Ukraine is suffering some setbacks. So this is a very tough fight for this city, the absolute focal point of the war right now.

INSKEEP: So Zelenskyy was near there. It is, of course, pretty significant that the president goes so near the front lines. But we should mention, Greg, that because of Russian missiles, Zelenskyy is always within Russian range. And wasn't there some evidence of that in Kyiv?

MYRE: Yeah. Absolutely, Steve. Kyiv hadn't come under attack for more than a month. And that lull ended at dawn on Sunday morning when four Russian cruise missiles slammed into four separate buildings at a large railway compound that repairs broken train cars. Now, the Russians said they destroyed tanks and armored vehicles. The Ukrainians said this wasn't true. And they invited journalists to come see for themselves, including me. We found caved-in roofs, collapsed brick walls. Everywhere you walk, there was glass crunching underfoot. One building was still smoldering, but we saw absolutely no sign of weapons.

INSKEEP: So something was destroyed but maybe not what the Russians claimed. Of course, Kyiv remains under Ukrainian control. What is happening in parts of the country that are under Russian control?

MYRE: Right. We don't hear much about that because once the Russians take over, it becomes a bit of a black hole. Let's talk for a moment about Mariupol. I think many of our listeners remember the heavy fighting there that took place before the Ukrainians surrendered. We spoke with the mayor, Vadym Boychenko. He's here in Kyiv but still in touch with citizens. And he said life there is just miserable beyond words.

VADYM BOYCHENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

MYRE: So he's saying that the water system is broken. It's almost impossible to find drinking water. Food is scarce. There's no electrical power or cellphone service. And Russia is blocking residents from leaving, so all in all, a terrible situation there.

INSKEEP: NPR's Greg Myre is in Kyiv. Greg, thanks for the update.

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