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4 months since Russia invaded, Ukraine faces a stark contrast

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Today marks exactly four months since Russia invaded Ukraine. Ukraine is making a diplomatic advance and some small military retreats. The European Union yesterday officially made Ukraine a candidate to join the organization, while its military may be pulling back from a city that Ukraine has struggled to defend for weeks. NPR's Greg Myre is covering the war from the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. Hey there, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: I'm remembering at the very beginning when it seemed amazing that the Ukrainians had held out for a week or four weeks, and now it's been four months but nowhere near the end, it seems. How's the country responding?

MYRE: Well, you know, it's still very subdued because of the war. They sort of got this big good news with the candidacy at the EU yesterday. And President Volodymyr Zelenskyy summed it up very concisely in a pretty emotional address last night. Let's hear what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY: (Non-English language spoken).

MYRE: And he's saying we will win, we will rebuild, we will join the EU, and then we'll rest. He says it was a historic moment. Ukraine now has a path to join the world's largest single bloc of peaceful, prosperous, democratic nations. In a normal time, this probably would have sent crowds into the streets to celebrate. But there is a curfew at night, and this is a subdued sort of mood here. And so there really hasn't been any public displays. And the more immediate challenge is this intense fighting in eastern Ukraine.

INSKEEP: What is this tactical withdrawal that we mentioned?

MYRE: Right. So a Ukrainian official says troops are being withdrawn from Severodonetsk because holding these positions which have just been smashed over many months doesn't really make any sense. Now, this is coming from the region's governor, Sergiy Gaidai. And we should stress he's the governor, not a military official. We haven't yet seen an official word from the military, but he has been providing regular daily updates in line with military assessments. The Russians already had virtually all of this city, except for a chemical plant where Ukrainian fighters and around 500 civilians are holed up. We're not yet clear if everybody's been able to get out safely. And this has been Russia's main target for weeks, part of this broader effort to take control of eastern Ukraine, the Donbas region, where Ukraine forces have just a few remaining cities and towns.

INSKEEP: Granting that we can't really predict anything with any reliability, there's a sense of where the trend lines are going, where things are heading. Where is this war going after four months?

MYRE: Right. Adding those caveats, as you mentioned - but in the big picture, most analyst thinks we are moving towards some sort of a standoff, as appears to be happening today. Russia is making some slow incremental gains. It does seem to have the momentum. Ukraine's military is outgunned. It's been suffering pretty high casualties recently. Now, that said, Ukraine is still vigorously contesting every Russian attempt to advance. Russia has to concentrate its firepower in one area for weeks and weeks to make these limited advances. And Ukraine says it's now received these U.S. long-range artillery rocket systems known as HIMARS. Ukraine says it'll help. They'll need many more. And the U.S. has more in the pipeline. Certainly an expectation of more fighting, but major breakthroughs are not really being forecast right now.

INSKEEP: Very briefly, let's try to connect the war to the diplomatic advance. Can Ukraine continue moving toward the European Union at the same time that it's fighting a war?

MYRE: Well, it's going to be very difficult. In general, a candidate country needs about a decade to do this, if not more, even in peacetime. Ukraine has to get its economy back, deal with corruption, improve its judicial system - a lot of big challenges ahead, especially in wartime.

INSKEEP: NPR's Greg Myre, thanks so much.

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

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.