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Russian forces may be preparing for a renewed offensive in eastern Ukraine

DANIEL ESTRIN, HOST:

Some 4,500 civilians have been killed and injured in Ukraine, according to the U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights. The office acknowledges that estimate is likely too low due to the difficulty in reaching areas still under siege. And on the battlefield, casualty numbers are likely to be many times greater than that. Despite the mounting human costs, Western governments are warning that the Russian military is preparing for a renewed effort to advance in eastern Ukraine. NPR's Tim Mak joins us now from central Ukraine. Hi, Tim.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Hey there.

ESTRIN: Let's start with the battlefield situation. What is the latest there?

MAK: Well, since the withdrawal of Russian troops from the area around the capital city of Kyiv, Ukraine has been bracing for a renewed offensive. And there are some signs that it could be coming soon. British intelligence has predicted that the fighting will intensify in eastern Ukraine over the next 2 to 3 weeks. And today, a senior U.S. defense official says that Russian forces are staging in and around the eastern Ukrainian area known as the Donbas. These military forces include things like ground troops and artillery and helicopters. Meanwhile, in the south, the city of Mariupol, which has been the scene of heavy fighting over the past few weeks, still remains contested, that U.S. official said. It remains a focus of the Russian air force's combat missions over the last day and over the last days and weeks. Despite a devastating weekslong Russian assault, though, Mariupol has stubbornly held out, even as soldiers have run low on ammo. And tens of thousands of civilians have been living in dire conditions with dwindling supplies of food and water.

ESTRIN: Wow. So with a new Russian offensive apparently in the works, tell us about what the U.S. is doing to ramp up its support for Ukraine.

MAK: Well, President Biden and President Zelenskyy actually talked by phone today. And in a statement, Zelenskyy said they spoke about evaluating Russian war crimes and also military aid. Biden announced this afternoon he had signed off on another $800 million in military aid. And specifically, the kinds of weapons that were being delivered were, quote, "tailored to the wide assault we expect Russia to launch in eastern Ukraine." So this new American aid will include things like artillery, armored personnel carriers, helicopters. What is really clear is that all sides expect violence to continue and in the coming days and weeks even escalate in eastern Ukraine. And one big question is whether the U.S. equipment and the training necessary to operate that American equipment can be delivered in time to make a difference.

ESTRIN: Right. Now, President Biden's assessment of Russia's war also seems to have shifted in recent days. He took the step of calling Russian actions in Ukraine a, quote, "genocide." What has been the reaction there in Ukraine and around the world?

MAK: Well, yeah, the images and information from the war have prompted Biden to take that step. He chose not to use the term genocide until Tuesday when during remarks in Iowa, he used it while describing Vladimir Putin's actions. And when asked to explain, he said he used the term genocide because Putin had been, quote, "trying to wipe out the idea of even being able to be Ukrainian." Zelenskyy praised Biden's use of the term, saying that they were, quote, "true words of a true leader." Zelenskyy also added that, quote, "calling things by their names is essential to stand up to evil." But French President Emmanuel Macron pushed back against the use of the term, saying that it was an escalation of rhetoric and that it might not be helpful in ending the war between Russia and Ukraine.

ESTRIN: NPR's Tim Mak in central Ukraine, thank you.

MAK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.