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Russia calls peace talks 'a dead end' as it preps a new offensive in eastern Ukraine

DANIEL ESTRIN, HOST:

Russian President Vladimir Putin addressed the public today. He said peace talks with Ukraine are at a, quote, "dead end." This comes as Russia prepares for a new offensive in eastern Ukraine. Military experts say Ukraine has been remarkably nimble countering Russia. But the upcoming offensive is expected to be much more focused and much more bloody. And that raises questions about Ukraine's ability to withstand this next phase of war.

NPR's Brian Mann is in Ukraine's western city of Lviv, and he joins us now. Hi, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hi, Daniel.

ESTRIN: Tell us more about what Putin said today.

MANN: Well, he described Russia's goals in Ukraine as noble and said peace negotiations are now at a dead end. You know, the world's seen growing evidence in recent days of atrocities against civilians committed by Russian troops. But Putin described those allegations as fake. He said those accusations actually make future peace talks impossible.

ESTRIN: Brian, another big development today - Ukrainian officials say they've arrested one of Putin's closest allies in Ukraine. Tell us more about that.

MANN: Yeah, Viktor Medvedchuk is an oligarch who's been closely linked to Putin for years. Putin is actually the godfather of Medvedchuk's daughter. Medvedchuk was one of the most influential pro-Russian figures here. Ukrainian officials haven't released a lot of details about this but say he was captured during a nighttime raid. And they've released a photograph of Medvedchuk wearing a military uniform.

ESTRIN: Wow. Meanwhile, there is still fighting in the southeastern port city of Mariupol. The battle there has not stopped since the war began. So what is the latest from Mariupol?

MANN: It's desperate. Fighting has been intense for the last 48 days. Ukrainian forces trapped there posted on Facebook that they've run out of supplies and haven't been reinforced. The mountain of wounded makes up almost half of the crew, the Marines said in their post; gradually, we are coming to an end. The Ukrainian Marines predict the rest of their force will be killed or captured soon if they don't get more assistance. And this comes a day after Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, said Mariupol has been effectively destroyed with tens of thousands of people killed there by the Russians.

ESTRIN: Wow. And as we said, Russia is expected to escalate its campaign in eastern Ukraine. And Russia appointed a new general to lead the offensive. So what are Ukrainians doing to prepare?

MANN: Yeah, Zelenskyy talked about this in his latest address and said the Ukrainian military is scrambling right now to shore up frontline units that will face this attack. He said despite weeks of sometimes intense fighting, their forces are still battle ready. But Zelenskyy also acknowledged that his army lacks a lot of the things, the heavy equipment, that these frontline fighters need.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY: (Speaking Ukrainian).

MANN: Zelenskyy says that Ukraine can resist this attack and even lift the siege of Mariupol. But they need jets and heavy armored vehicles and artillery.

ESTRIN: Brian, what do we know about who is actually leading Ukraine's military in this fight?

MANN: Yeah, he's a guy who's kept a very low profile during this war. His name is General Valerii Zaluzhnyi. I spoke with Yohann Michel, a military analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, and he told me Zaluzhnyi, who trained with NATO forces, has been working with other Ukrainian commanders for years to prepare his country's army for this conflict, since 2014, in fact. And that's when Russia invaded Crimea. Michel told me that Zaluzhnyi has helped produce a fighting force with really high morale that's also nimble and able to adapt quickly.

YOHANN MICHEL: It's almost a showcase of how you should adapt to a situation in wartime. It's a really impressive organization that has been able to achieve that.

MANN: Michel told me that Ukraine created a quick response force within the army that's super mobile that can respond quickly when there are problem areas. They've been rotating soldiers home to rest, so they'll be fresh when this offensive begins. And they've been working to get a lot of those new weapons provided by the U.S. and other countries into soldiers' hands.

ESTRIN: Well, is Ukraine prepared for this next, more violent phase of war?

MANN: Yeah, it's a big question now. And I asked Yohann Michel about this. He says everyone, including himself, underestimated Ukraine's strength. But Michel also thinks this next phase of the war will be a much harder test, especially if Russians stop making those big strategic mistakes.

MICHEL: So if the Russians are getting better with more achievable objectives, the fight will be difficult for the Ukrainian armed forces. But I'm saying difficult, not impossible.

MANN: And I should say, Daniel, all the Ukrainians I talk to here say they are convinced that their country will win this fight.

ESTRIN: NPR's Brian Mann in Lviv, Ukraine. Thanks, Brian.

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

Brian Mann

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