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The latest from Ukraine and Russia's ground war — and war of words

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Russia carried out another barrage of missile strikes in Ukraine yesterday, killing several civilians in an apartment building in the city of Dnipro. This amid contested claims over who controls a town in eastern Ukraine after months of fighting and signs of infighting among Russian forces involved. Joining us now is NPR's Elissa Nadworny in Kharkiv and Charles Maynes in Moscow. Welcome to the program.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Hi there.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Thank you.

RASCOE: Elissa, what's the latest from these airstrikes?

NADWORNY: On Saturday, Russia launched a massive missile attack throughout the country. It hit several cities from Lviv in the west to Kharkiv in the northeast where we are now. There was heavy damage to energy infrastructure here in Kharkiv. The whole city lost power, though crews were able to get it partially restored just several hours later.

RASCOE: And what's known about the strike on the apartment building in Dnipro?

NADWORNY: Yeah, it's a pretty devastating scene. It was a nine-story apartment building. Many people were trapped. The whole building is destroyed. And this happened on a Saturday afternoon. So a lot of families were home. Rescue efforts have been through the night.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Speaking Ukrainian).

NADWORNY: More than 25 people are dead, including a 15-year-old girl. The city's deputy mayor said rescue work is ongoing. And emergency crews are periodically pausing their work for moments of silence to listen for people trapped under the rubble.

RASCOE: Wow. Charles, these Russian attacks come as Moscow claimed its forces' first real victory in months, saying they had control over the town of Soledar. Do they?

MAYNES: Well, you know, Russia insists it has liberated Soledar. This is a small mining town in the east of Ukraine, in the Donbas. And that's welcome news for the Kremlin, if it's true. But the real story here seems to be Russian infighting over who gets credit for the victory - if, that is, there's credit to be had. You know, Soledar has really laid bare this simmering rivalry between the Russian Defense Ministry and a Kremlin-backed mercenary force known as the Wagner Group, and in particular with its founder, a man by the name of Yevgeny Prigozhin. Now, first Prigozhin proclaimed Wagner fighters had singlehandedly seized Soledar. Then the Defense Ministry insisted its forces had taken the town and made no mention of Wagner, which angered Prigozhin. And their squabbling continues in what appears to be a battle for favor and influence in the Kremlin.

RASCOE: Elissa, what is Ukraine saying about these Russian claims about this town?

NADWORNY: Well, Ukraine has maintained that the battle for Soledar is ongoing, and that's despite several European and U.S. analysts saying it's most likely controlled by Russia. I just want to stress here how small this victory is. Analysts say the fall of Soledar doesn't mean the imminent fall of a nearby city, Bakhmut, which is perhaps the real Russian target. That's been an important place for Ukrainian communication, moving troops. I talked with Oleh Zhdanov. He's a Ukrainian military expert here. Let's listen.

OLEH ZHDANOV: (Speaking Ukrainian).

NADWORNY: He says capturing Bakhmut, capturing Soledar, is more about politics back in Russia than a strategic military operation. Of course, the ongoing fighting in the area is drawing heavy losses for Ukraine, too, which raises questions about if this isn't important militarily, why fight so hard to keep it?

RASCOE: Charles, another big development this week was a surprise shake-up in Russia's military command. Who is in charge, and what's the significance of this shift?

MAYNES: Yeah, you know, the new commander is, in a way, the old commander. General Valery Gerasimov, President Putin's longtime chief of general staff, is formally taking over the military campaign. But Gerasimov was heavily involved in the planning of the initial Russian invasion in February. In fact, many people think he deserves blame for what went wrong there. And that's why this shake-up also looks to be political, almost an extension of the squabbling we saw in Soledar.

Gerasimov takes over command from a man named Sergei Surovikin, who was championed by hardliners like the Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin that we talked about earlier. Now, the Defense Ministry explained the change, saying it reflected the commander's widening scope of responsibilities, which some people took as a sign of Gerasimov's intentions to further escalate. Yet, as we saw yesterday, that doesn't mean Russia has abandoned Surovikin, the previous commander's real stamp on this war, which is the Russian strategy of trying to bomb Ukraine into submission through attacks on infrastructure and cities. And, of course, as Elissa mentioned, a terrible human cost.

RASCOE: And, Elissa, this is all happening as Europe and the U.S. pledge more weapons to Ukraine. When will those weapons arrive?

NADWORNY: That's right. In anticipation of a Russian offensive in the spring, a lot of weapons which previously were thought to escalate things too much are now heading to Ukraine. In addition to armed vehicles from Germany, France and the U.S., the U.K. prime minister announced on Saturday that they would be sending Challenger 2 tanks and artillery systems to Ukraine. We don't know when those tanks will be delivered, but British media reported that some could be sent immediately. And then coming up this week, Ukrainian forces will travel to Oklahoma to get trained on the Patriot missile defense system, which is a longtime request from Ukraine. The hope is better air defenses will help prevent what this country experienced this weekend.

RASCOE: That's NPR's Elissa Nadworny in Kharkiv and Charles Maynes in Moscow. Thank you both so much.

MAYNES: You're welcome.

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

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.