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Ukraine says it has regained control of its capital Kyiv

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

We start this hour with the latest from Ukraine, where the government says it has regained control of the entire Kyiv region for the first time since the invasion began on February 24. The advancing soldiers are discovering a bleak landscape of the recently liberated areas. There are reports of civilians lying dead along the side of roads and mass graves. NPR's Becky Sullivan is in Kyiv. Hello.

BECKY SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning.

RASCOE: I understand that you've just come out of an interview with an adviser to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. What did he tell you?

SULLIVAN: Yeah, that's right. So I talked to - his name is Oleksiy Arestovych. He's an adviser, as you say, to the president, talks to the president every day. You know, the entire time we're chatting, just to give you a picture, he's getting texts and updates from military folks. And we talked about the military campaign now, the ongoing negotiations, where he sees this conflict headed, which at this point, U.S. and Ukrainian officials alike are saying that Russia has assessed that they can't take the capital of Kyiv. And so instead, Russia is withdrawing troops and sort of moving them around to this eastern region of Donbas, where they might step up the intensity of a campaign that's already been pretty brutal down there. And so what Oleksiy Arestovych told me is that, you know, they're preparing for a tough couple weeks. And they're warning Ukrainians that this is going to be a particularly difficult phase of the war.

OLEKSIY ARESTOVYCH: (through interpreter) For the next two weeks, there will be serious fights for the east and the south. They will try to encircle our troops in the Donbas area and to finish off Mariupol. They will go on the offensive against us, and we will confront them. There will be a huge fight. Feathers will be in the air.

SULLIVAN: Feathers will be in the air - a pretty evocative image there. But in the way that he wrapped this up is that, you know, Russia doesn't have enough reserves, Ukraine believes, and so he says that the longer this goes on, the better the outlook for Ukraine.

RASCOE: At the same time, there are these ongoing negotiations. There's talk of a potential meeting between Zelenskyy and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Did he have anything to say about that?

SULLIVAN: Yeah. I mean, I will say that we still seem a little bit a ways away from a Zelenskyy-Putin meeting because the Russians are saying today that they - they're repeating that they want the big pieces already to be in place before a face-to-face meeting happens. And there's still some distance on those issues. But what Ukrainian officials, including Zelenskyy, have said is that Ukraine is not naive and that Russia they view as an untrustworthy, you know, sort of negotiator, that you can't trust everything Russia and Putin say. And so I asked Arestovych, how is Ukraine - how can you approach these negotiations, essentially, when you don't trust who's on the other side of the table? And he told me that he thinks, essentially, that Ukraine has enough leverage, that it's not as much of an issue as it might seem.

ARESTOVYCH: (Through interpreter) If Russia does not follow through with its promises, then by keeping sanctions, we will keep beating them on the battlefield. And our partners will be imposing more sanctions or not lifting those that are in place. That means that Russia is trapped. It won't be able to lie to us.

SULLIVAN: And he and, overall, all Ukrainian leadership are starting to express a little more confidence about the direction that these negotiations are taking, given the way that things are going on the ground. And so Ukraine has the upper hand, confident about that, telling Ukrainians they just have to wait it out, which, of course, is a pretty tough message for folks who are still living in these areas with heavy fighting.

RASCOE: You're in Kyiv now. What's the latest there? And we have about a minute left.

SULLIVAN: So like we have heard from Ukrainian officials, this area is recently cleared. The suburbs of Kyiv, about northwest - about 15 miles to the northwest of the city is the closest that the Russians got here, where there was a lot of shelling, a lot of street battles. I talked to a soldier just today who took part in the fighting over there. He said the suburbs were just a total ghost town. Streets were a battlefield, houses emptied out by Russian forces using them for shelter. They're now liberated, so to speak, as officials say. Some journalists went into a town called Bucha earlier and saw, you know, as you described earlier, photos of the streets in just bleak condition, burnt out cars, ruined buildings, 20 or so bodies, men dressed in civilian clothes. And military officials say that Russians have left mines here and other traps waiting, as Ukrainian forces have - as they move back in. And they're just warning residents not to come back for many more weeks.

RASCOE: NPR's Becky Sullivan in Kyiv, thank you.

SULLIVAN: Absolutely. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.