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What lies ahead after two years of Russia's invasion of Ukraine


Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine two years ago today. It's the biggest attack on a European country since World War II.


DARIIA HIRNA: Me and my husband, we are now about to leave Kyiv. It's our...

LAUREN FRAYER: Mayor Vadym Boychenko says Russian forces have smashed trains, destroyed bridges and are blocking supplies.

KSENIYA KOVALEVA: I think you will hear the bomb now - the aircraft with bombs flying.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Is the Russian government who is the terrorist in this situation.

SIMON: Russia expected a quick win. Ukraine predicted a Russian defeat. Neither has achieved what they'd hoped. We want to talk about the state of the war now with NPR's correspondents in the two capitals, Joanna Kakissis in Kyiv and Charles Maynes in Moscow. Thank you both for being with us.


JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Thanks for having us. Good morning.

SIMON: Joanna, let's begin with you. How is the war anniversary being felt in Kyiv?

KAKISSIS: Well, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's his government is trying to put on a brave face and project strength. World leaders are in Kyiv today to stand by Zelenskyy. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau are among them. But the mood in Ukraine is one of anxiety and sadness. I keep thinking about the mother of a POW, a prisoner of war, I met a week ago in northeastern Ukraine, in a village not far from the Russian border. Her name is Nataliya Kucherenko, and she has not seen her son Vova in two years. Every time there's a prisoner exchange, Nataliya stands on the road holding a giant banner with her son's face, hoping he's among them. My producer, Polina Lytvynova, is interpreting for Nataliya here. And as you can hear, they're both crying.

NATALIYA KUCHERENKO: (Through interpreter) I'm standing, like, for five hours, for seven hours, whether it's rain or even when it was, like, the frost, like minus-25, I was standing in the street because I'm waiting for my son.

KAKISSIS: And after two years, Nataliya looks gaunt and haunted, as if she's a prisoner of war herself.

SIMON: Joanna, do a lot of people in Ukraine seem to feel that way?

KAKISSIS: Yeah, for sure, especially now. Last year, there was hope for a quick victory, that Ukraine would get all its territories back. But a counteroffensive last year failed to retake significant amounts of land. And then by year's end, weapons, especially ammunition, began running low. Europeans promised a million artillery shells last year, and not even half of these have been delivered. And meanwhile, future U.S. aid to Ukraine is up in the air.

SIMON: Charles, let's turn to you in Moscow. How's the two-year anniversary being marked there?

MAYNES: Well, we had a massive fireworks show here in Moscow last night to mark Defender of the Fatherland Day. It's a Soviet holiday with roots in the USSR's victory over Nazi Germany. And, of course, for Russian President Vladimir Putin, it's yet another chance to draw a full circle these false historical parallels between the war against fascist Germany and his invasion of Ukraine today, which he did in a video address to the nation. Let's listen in to a bit.



MAYNES: So here, Putin says today's soldiers and officers are continuing Russia's glorious battlefield traditions in Ukraine and calling them true national heroes and vowing to give them everything they need to fulfill the tasks ahead.

SIMON: Charles, there have been reports we've seen of Putin seeking backdoor negotiations with the U.S. that would be aimed at ending or freezing the conflict. Any evidence of that you see in Moscow?

MAYNES: Well, in comments here, Putin insists Russia's goals are still to de-Nazify and demilitarize Ukraine, which doesn't sound like he's seeking much of a compromise. Moreover, Russia's in a much stronger position this year than it was if we'd had this conversation a year ago, for many of the reasons that Joanna just outlined. You know, and, indeed, Putin projects confidence in his speeches and his actions. Just this week, we saw him fly a supersonic bomber and drive a truck over a newly constructed road - all not-so-subtle messages that, we can win in Ukraine and still thrive economically despite Western sanctions.

SIMON: Joanna, what is the Ukrainian military point of view right now?

KAKISSIS: Well, the lack of military aid is clearly being felt on the battlefield. A week ago, Ukrainian troops were forced to withdraw from the eastern town of Avdiivka, which had managed to hold back the Russians for 10 years. It's been on the front line since Russian proxies, backed by Russian troops, invaded and occupied parts of eastern Ukraine back in 2014. In Avdiivka, Ukrainian troops were outnumbered and outgunned. They were rationing ammunition. The Russians had almost encircled them. And during the withdrawal there were reports of wounded soldiers being left behind and the Russians capturing Ukrainian soldiers and then executing them. And now the Russians are advancing along several points on the eastern front line.

SIMON: Charles, you were with us last week and talked about the death and legacy of Alexei Navalny. Since that time, we've seen this kind of standoff between Mr. Navalny's family and the Russian state over his remains. What's the current status?

MAYNES: Well, it's a grim story. You know, for a full week, Navalny's mother, Lyudmila Navalnaya, has been in this arctic town where her son was being held in a morgue, trying to retrieve his remains. And for a full week, authorities have refused to grant her access. In fact, Navalnaya said investigators were threatening to bury her son on the grounds of the prison where he died if she didn't agree to a secret burial. As a result, Russian supporters abroad launched an online campaign, really, to shame Russian President Vladimir Putin into releasing the body, noting that the Kremlin leader was violating his own professed beliefs as an Orthodox Christian. Now, whether that's what did it or something else - who knows? - but today, Navalny's body was finally released to his mother. Less clear is whether or where the family will be allowed to carry out a public funeral service. The whole standoff seemed intended to prevent just that.

SIMON: Joanna, let's turn to you for some thoughts about what Ukrainians seem to be hoping for in 2024.

KAKISSIS: Well, at the very least, the Ukrainians are hoping to keep the Russians from advancing. Ukraine is making its own weapons, hoping to at least offer some supplies to their troops. They're continuing to lobby their Western allies, especially Republicans in the U.S., to keep up support. And to increase morale, Ukrainian leaders are focusing on some wins, especially in the Black Sea, where the special forces pushed back Russia's naval fleet by attacking it with Ukrainian-made sea drones.

SIMON: And, Charles, what the view from Moscow?

MAYNES: You know, amid all this projected confidence from the Kremlin, there are certainly tensions bubbling below the surface - among them, the demands of these families of some 300,000 civilians who were mobilized for the war over a year ago. These families are now protesting openly for the return of their loved ones from the front. Meanwhile, we have tens of thousands dead, hundreds of thousands injured. And at what gain? You know, Russia claims to have annexed four more territories from Ukraine in name, but it still doesn't control any of them fully, at least not yet. And so we see growing signs of war fatigue here, even among Putin supporters, in an environment where criticizing the war can land you in jail. Poll shows a majority of Russians would welcome Putin declaring the war over tomorrow if the Kremlin leader were to do so.

SIMON: NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow, Joanna Kakissis in Kyiv. Thank you both very much.

KAKISSIS: You're welcome.

MAYNES: Good to be with you. 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.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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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