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On the 31st anniversary of Ukraine's split from Soviet Union, the war hits month 6


Today is Independence Day in Ukraine. Thirty-one years ago, Ukraine split from the Soviet Union. Today also marks six months to the day since Russian President Vladimir Putin sent troops into Ukraine to try to bring the country back into Russia's orbit. Since then, some 13 million Ukrainians have been displaced. Thousands upon thousands of troops have died on both sides in the biggest war in Europe since 1945, and today brought yet more bloodshed.

I want to bring in NPR's Frank Langfitt, who we find in the southwestern port city of Odesa. And, Frank, I was going to ask how Ukraine has celebrated Independence Day, but it sounds like, in fact, it has turned into an awful day there.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: It has. It was very - supposed to be very subdued. They were trying to avoid celebrations so that there wouldn't be potential targets. But President Zelenskyy has just announced that there was a missile strike on a rail station in the Dnipro region that's killed at least 15 people, left about 50 injured; so, you know, more violence today on a day when the country would like to be celebrating.

KELLY: Yeah. I want to put this in the broader context of how the war is going six months in because I know you have been out talking to the military these past few days. Is Ukraine making progress on what they had promised would be a big counteroffensive?

LANGFITT: No, not at all. In fact, I'd say the counteroffensive that has been talked about hasn't materialized. And some commanders I talked to are up front about that. You know, right now, Russia controls about 20% of the country in the east and the south. And when I was down here, I guess more than three months ago, I've been sort of struck at how limited the progress has been since I've been away. So, like, for instance, there was one village that NPR visited back in late April or so, and at that time, it was, like, four miles from the front line. Now it's maybe 11 miles from the front line, but it's still shelled every day. It used to have about 7,000 people in it. It's now about a hundred.

And I was actually going to go visit this village maybe yesterday. I was thinking about it. But it keeps getting hit on a daily basis. So another example - I was talking to a soldier in another part. This was up in a part of the Kherson region, and she said it had taken three months to take back another village. And that's because the Russians were so well dug in.

KELLY: Wow. I'm just doing the math. You're talking about that one village that's still being shelled that moved from being four miles to 11 miles from the front line, and that was the efforts of four months. Is it that Russia is just putting up such strong defenses that Ukraine is having trouble?

LANGFITT: Yeah. I mean, that is one reason. The Russians have actually sent - because they expected some kind of counteroffensive, they sent thousands of troops down here to reinforce their lines. But there are other reasons as well. You know, Ukrainians want to go on the offense, but it takes a lot more troops and weapons to take land than it does to defend land. And I got to say, Ukrainians are better armed than when I last saw them down here.

Back in April, they were complaining they had no long-range weapons. Now they have things like these HIMARS. These are sophisticated American precision-guided rockets. They can travel more than 50 miles. We've talked about this. And what they've allowed the Ukrainians to do is knock out a lot of Russian ammunition depots. And there's a colonel I was talking to a few days ago, his name is Roman Kostenko, and he said the ammunition - that loss of ammunition is now forcing the Russians to be a lot more judicious in their targeting. And this is what he had to say.

ROMAN KOSTENKO: (Through interpreter) There are some of our positions they aren't shelling at all because they are currently shelling priority targets. Earlier, they shelled along the entire front line. Now they shell in specific places.

LANGFITT: And what this means also, Mary Louise, is the Ukrainians can move a lot more easily to set up new lines of attacks. So a few days back, I was driving on the road, and I come across a bunch of Ukrainian tanks, two mobile rocket launchers, and they were comfortably moving around to new positions. But attacking does require lots of heavy weapons, and the Ukrainians continue to say they need a lot more of them.

KELLY: Although the U.S. and NATO would push back and say, look, we've given Ukraine a ton of weapons already. There was a big announcement of yet more money today.

LANGFITT: Yeah, the numbers have been astonishing. It's billions upon billions in military aid, and it's been done at an incredible pace. And in talking to U.S. officials, they said they had to look back actually to 1973 and the Yom Kippur War to find a time when the United States armed an ally - in this case Israel back then - with so much weaponry in such a short period of time.

KELLY: Frank, let me just step you back from the battlefield. I remember so well, six months ago today, we had a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Mike Mullen, on NPR saying this war would represent a reordering of the world order, that this war would change NATO, would change the U.S. Has it?

LANGFITT: In some ways, yes. And in other ways, I think we need to see how this all plays out. I mean, certainly NATO and the U.S. did rally around Ukraine when, frankly, the Russians failed to take Kyiv in the 72 hours roughly that they expected. And now what we've seen is NATO actually is in the process of expanding. Finland and Sweden are in the process of joining. But, you know, Mary Louise, NATO countries, they - you know, the military stocks, the treasuries, are not bottomless. The various countries in Europe and elsewhere have different - a variety of political priorities - inflation, climate change, China.

And there's also - we're waiting to see what happens in the winter when, you know, it could be a harsh winter without much Russian oil. So the worry here that you hear in Ukraine, especially among commanders, is there's going to be Ukraine fatigue, that the West won't give enough weapons for Ukraine to win, will eventually push Ukraine to go to the negotiating table with a weak hand. And they'll feel under pressure to give up land that right now they're continuing to fight really hard to win back.

KELLY: NPR's Frank Langfitt reporting from the port city of Odesa on this day, Independence Day, in Ukraine. Thank you, Frank.

LANGFITT: Good to talk, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.