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Ukranians in Sumy are still living under attacks from Russia

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The leader of NATO is promising the delivery of a million drones to Ukraine, as U.S. aid to the country remains stalled by election-year politics. This is a boost for Ukrainian troops who are trying to hold their ground while running dangerously low on ammunition. And as Russia's war on Ukraine enters its third year, Ukrainians around the country are looking for signs of hope that the war could end this year. NPR's Joanna Kakissis has been traveling around Ukraine's east, and she's on the line now. Hi, Joanna.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Hey, Juana.

SUMMERS: So Joanna, start by just telling me about where you are now. What is going on in the area?

KAKISSIS: So Juana, we are in northeastern Ukraine, in a region called Sumy, which actually borders Russia. The administrative center of this region is a city also called Sumy, and we're actually in the city of Sumy. And a little background on this area - when the Russians launched their full-scale invasion of Ukraine nearly two years ago, they occupied parts of this region. The Ukrainians managed to drive them out three months later, but Russian forces shelled this region regularly, and they even shelled it today. On the drive over here, we saw so many destroyed houses and so many signs warning that forests, parks and even playgrounds are still land-mined.

SUMMERS: You mentioned that you're near the border with Russia, and I'm just curious - as you get closer to that border, what do you notice that's different?

KAKISSIS: So we can't get too close because the Ukrainian military guards it. But the villagers nearby have told us that Russian mortar attacks are deadly not only to people, but, you know, they're destroying livelihoods. There are a lot of farmers here, and these attacks burned down their farms, and they kill their livestock. They killed their sheep, their cows. But there is a checkpoint here where Ukrainians actually can enter from Russia. It's one of the few - perhaps the only checkpoint that still works regularly. Some civilians escaping from occupied Ukrainian territories will cross this checkpoint. The others crossing this border are Ukrainian POWs. They're going home after prisoner exchanges. And the villagers who live near the Russian border actually line the streets to cheer as the buses of freed Ukrainian prisoners go by.

SUMMERS: Wow. Joanna, what can you tell us about the conversations you've been having with Ukrainians there in that region as it relates to this ongoing war?

KAKISSIS: Well, everyone I've spoken to in the northeast doesn't seem - doesn't expect the war to end anytime soon. I can hear the sadness in their voices when they talk about it. And I got into an extended conversation last night with a badly injured former soldier named Serhiy, and he said, look, if Donald Trump gets elected, he's going to sell out our country to Vladimir Putin. And, you know, maybe we should just make a deal now and give up what Russia has already occupied. And almost immediately after he said this, he wanted to take it back, like what he had said was a betrayal. I met him in Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city. It's also in the northeast and close to Russia. And it's also where I met Maria Mezentzeva. She's a member of Ukraine's parliament from the Servant of the People Party. That's President Zelenskyy's party. And she says giving up territory in exchange for a cease-fire is non-negotiable.

MARIA MEZENTZEVA: I talk to soldiers, and they're like, OK, why we were, then, lost, like, hundreds of our friends when we fought for this and that village if our aim is not to liberate? If we paid such a high price already, we just cannot give up.

KAKISSIS: She also tried to strike a positive note, pointing out that Ukrainian forces are hitting Russian military targets in the Black Sea, trying to turn the momentum around and turn 2024 into a year of victory for Ukraine.

SUMMERS: Joanna, what is the latest for Ukraine on the battlefield and at today's NATO meeting as well?

KAKISSIS: So at today's NATO meeting, the secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, announced that the security alliance would open a joint training center with Ukraine - a NATO country that borders Ukraine. But, look, Ukraine has had a bad six months, at least in the ground war. Its counteroffensive did not significantly push back Russian defense lines.

And, you know, Russia is very much on the offensive, concentrating right now on the town of Avdiivka, which is in the east. There was news today that Ukrainian troops have partially pulled back from of Avdiivka, although they are not calling it a retreat. And here in the northeast, not too far away from where I am now, the Russians are trying to retake towns that Ukrainians liberated in late 2022. So that's just leaving many people here feeling like they're losing ground rather than moving forward to some kind of victory.

SUMMERS: NPR's Joanna Kakissis reporting from eastern Ukraine. Joanna, thank you.

KAKISSIS: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF CITY OF THE SUN'S "THESE DAYS ARE NOW") 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.
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