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There are signs Ukraine's spring counteroffensive may have already started

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Ukraine has been talking for weeks about a spring counteroffensive, and there are signs that it may have already started.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Yeah. Ukrainian forces claim they've made advances in the battle for Bakhmut, a city in the east that Russia has been trying to capture for more than 10 months. This comes as Russia is launching more missiles at Ukraine as it attempts to degrade Ukrainian defenses.

FADEL: Joining us to discuss the recent developments is NPR's Ukraine correspondent Joanna Kakissis, who is in the central city of Dnipro.

Hi, Joanna.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Hi, Leila.

FADEL: So let's start with Bakhmut. For weeks now, we've heard Russian forces control most of the city. Has anything changed?

KAKISSIS: So inside the city, Leila, the situation is pretty much the same. The Russians still control most of it. The fighting continues - lots of dead soldiers on both sides, with the city in absolute ruins. But outside Bakhmut, Ukraine says their soldiers are actually gaining. Ukraine's deputy defense minister, Hanna Maliar, says Ukrainian troops have recently taken back 7.5 square miles of land just outside the city.

FADEL: So, Joanna, does this mean that the counteroffensive may be starting, then?

KAKISSIS: So some military analysts, especially here, are saying as much. But the truth is we don't know. President Zelenskyy has said that the counteroffensive will start soon, but Ukraine still needs more weapons from the West. Ukrainians are very eager for this counteroffensive to start. We saw that in Kherson, where we just spent a few days reporting. Ukrainian forces liberated the city of Kherson in November. But Russian forces are less than a mile away on the other side of the river, and they attack the city nearly every day. We were there shortly after 26 people died in missile attacks, including an attack at a supermarket where we shop when we're in town. We spoke to Special Forces soldiers in Kherson who say, you know, we've been laying the groundwork for a counteroffensive for months, and they say that they're ready.

FADEL: And what about the situation for Russian forces? Are they making any progress?

KAKISSIS: So with the exception of Bakhmut, they've made very little progress on the ground. But Russia has been attacking Ukraine with a lot of missiles in the past few days. On Monday night, the Russians launched a barrage of missiles and drones that included six hypersonic missiles, which Russia claims are almost impossible to shoot down. Yet Ukraine says its air defenses, which include Western weapons - that these air defenses got them all. And now the West is promising more weapons after Zelenskyy's whirlwind trip to European capitals in the past week. That trip might actually give Ukraine the advanced F-16 fighter jets that Zelenskyy has long sought.

FADEL: So before I let you go, I also wanted to ask about the deal that's been allowing Ukrainian grain through the Black Sea to avoid a global food crisis. Where does that stand right now?

KAKISSIS: Yeah. There's a chance, Leila, that that deal is going to collapse. Russia has been saying for months that it doesn't like the deal, that it has hidden sanctions on its own agricultural products. This deal was brokered last year by the U.N. and Turkey to help get Ukrainian grain, which helps feed the world, out of a war zone. And the last ship before this deal expires is expected to leave Ukraine today.

FADEL: NPR's Ukraine correspondent Joanna Kakissis reporting in Dnipro on the possible start of the Ukrainian counteroffensive.

Thank you for your reporting.

KAKISSIS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
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.