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Ukraine's counteroffensive gains traction in the south

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

After months of grueling ground combat and artillery battles, Ukraine's military says it is making real progress in the south. They've punched through the first and strongest of three defensive lines built by Russia. What is not clear is whether they will be able to gain more ground before autumn rains turn the battlefield to mud. NPR's Brian Mann joins me from Kyiv. Hey there, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: OK, so just take us to this moment. What is happening? And how significant is it?

MANN: Yeah, what Ukrainian officials say is that they have finally secured a small but really important town called Robotyne that Russia had been using as a logistics base. And it anchored part of that big defensive line that Russia built using trenches and a lot of landmines and artillery. Capturing Robotyne meant a long, bloody fight. But speaking today, Andriy Kovalov, a spokesman for Ukraine's general staff, said Ukrainian forces are already widening that breach.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANDRIY KOVALOV: (Speaking Ukrainian).

MANN: And what he's saying there, Mary Louise, is that Ukrainian forces have been able to advance to two nearby villages flanking Robotyne, and then they're using artillery to target Russians in the next defensive line. So we're not seeing a huge breakthrough here. There's no rout, you know, with Russians in full retreat. But the Ukrainians say this is meaningful progress.

KELLY: Meaningful progress. So what is the next move? Where do things go from here?

MANN: Well, we're watching this closely. NPR was able to reach a Ukrainian officer today with the ground unit taking part in this fight. And for security reasons, we're not disclosing his name. He expects the next major goal is going to be a bigger town called Tokmak about 20 miles to the south. And he says if Ukrainian forces can get there, it would put them in artillery range of the Melitopol Airport, which is another 50 miles south. This is kind of a step-by-step process. Melitopol, though, is the big goal. It's a Russian-occupied city on the Sea of Azov. It's crucial to supplying Russian forces all the way to the Crimean peninsula. So if Ukraine can pull that off, it'll be a big win.

KELLY: Yeah. OK, and so, again, Ukraine has fought through this first important Russian defensive line. This was a big one. What is the state of Russian forces, of the opposition they're facing now?

MANN: Well, what we're hearing is that the conditions on the ground are still ugly. Russians have bungled a lot of operations throughout this war. But by all accounts, these defensive lines they've built are effective and deadly. And our Ukrainian military source near Robotyne told us that the fighting ahead is expected to be brutal. It's very difficult to advance further, he told us. I'm not going to predict our chances, he said. Our infantry is suffering significant losses from enemy artillery, and there are a lot of enemy drones. He also said, Mary Louise, that Russia has begun using larger smart bombs targeting Ukrainian positions on that battlefield.

KELLY: To give people a point to focus on on the map of Ukraine, I want to note this battle is taking place about 50 miles from Zaporizhzhia, the big nuclear reactor that Russian troops have occupied for more than a year. What is happening there?

MANN: Yeah. I was at a gathering yesterday with Petro Kotin, head of Ukraine's nuclear power utility. And he said the situation at Zaporizhzhia, Europe's biggest nuclear reactor complex, is incredibly dangerous.

PETRO KOTIN: Unfortunately, it is a degradation everywhere. We are talking about radiation safety. Everything is degraded - equipment, components and personnel. Everything is in very bad condition.

MANN: And Kotin says all the reactors at Zaporizhzhia have been shut down, Mary Louise, so he's not worried about a full-scale Chernobyl-like disaster. But he points out there are Russian troops, Russian artillery, all around that reactor complex now. Ukraine is calling on the international community to demand more inspections to assess risks there, but, of course, that's hard to do with this battle underway.

KELLY: Thank you, Brian.

MANN: Thank you.

KELLY: NPR's Brian Mann reporting from Kyiv. 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.

Brian Mann
Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.