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U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is in Kyiv on an unannounced visit

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Secretary of State Antony Blinken is in Kyiv this morning holding talks with Ukrainian officials. During his visit today, Russia targeted Ukraine with a barrage of cruise missiles. Most were shot down, we're told. Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, says Russian shelling killed at least 16 people near the city of Donetsk. Blinken arrived in a moment when Ukraine's summer counteroffensive is perhaps entering its final weeks, still struggling against powerful Russian defenses.

NPR's Brian Mann has been covering all this. Brian, hey there.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: Why is Blinken visiting now?

MANN: Well, the big goal, clearly, is to signal Washington's support for Ukraine, despite what are really growing questions about the pace of this counteroffensive and the huge cost. Some of that support is tangible. A senior State Department official says Blinken is delivering roughly another $1 billion in U.S. funding for military, economic and humanitarian aid.

Speaking in Kyiv today just a short time ago, Steve, Blinken said the U.S. is going to help Ukraine prepare for a future after this war.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTONY BLINKEN: A military that's capable of deterring and defending against further aggression, but also a strong democracy and a strong economy are the difference between a Ukraine that survives, which it will, and a Ukraine that thrives, which it must and can. And we will be your partners in that effort.

MANN: Of course, Steve, that's looking to the future, and Ukraine is, right now, still in the thick of this fight with the counteroffensive grinding on in the south and east.

INSKEEP: Haven't some officials in Washington been expressing concern about the pace of that attack?

MANN: Yeah, absolutely. You know, Ukraine's goal this summer was to punch through to Melitopol - that's a city on the Sea of Azov - part of an effort to divide Russia's army and cut off their supply lines. And what some critics say is that Ukraine spread their forces too thin, attacking in too many areas along the front line. Ukrainian officials have pushed back. They say they are gaining ground in the face of really strong Russian defenses.

The State Department official told reporters another goal of this visit is for Blinken to get a really accurate assessment of what's really happening on the ground. Blinken started his meeting with Zelenskyy a short time ago, and Zelenskyy, interestingly, is just back from visiting with the front-line Ukrainian troops.

INSKEEP: Well, why don't you give us your assessment, Brian? What are you hearing from Ukrainian soldiers and military analysts where you are?

MANN: Well, this is a brutal fight. You know, around Robotyne in the south, Ukraine has fought through the toughest line of Russian minefields, trenches and artillery batteries. Now they're trying to breach the next line of defenses around a town called Verbove. A Ukrainian officer I spoke to was pretty candid about just how harrowing this is, really house-to-house fighting through the ruins of towns. What Ukrainians hope, though, Steve, is that if they can breach these lines, it'll create a bigger opening for them to move more quickly through with Western tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles. The clock is ticking, though. Once the autumn rains set in, this battlefield's going to turn to mud, and that'll make movement even harder.

INSKEEP: Let's talk about the Russian side here for a moment. There's this bit of news from the other side of Eurasia, in which we're told that North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un, is going to get on a train, leave his country, go to Russia next door and talk with Vladimir Putin about passing weapons over to the Russians. What's going on?

MANN: Yeah. Well, what the State Department says is that Putin is scrounging for equipment, and they say this is another sign of Russia's desperation. And we have seen signs Russia's military is struggling. Of course, Ukraine is also having a tough time. They have problems with manpower as well. One thing that we've heard from Ukrainian media is that Zelenskyy is going to travel to New York to ask for even more support at the U.N. General Assembly meeting later this month.

INSKEEP: NPR's Brian Mann is in Kyiv. Thanks so much.

MANN: Thank 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.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Brian Mann
Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.