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Russia may turn to destroying eastern cities instead of capturing Kyiv

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

There are concerns over Russia's reaction to President Biden's speech yesterday in Warsaw, where he sharply attacked Russian President Vladimir Putin. NPR's Becky Sullivan is in the Ukrainian city of Dnipro and joins us now. Hi, Becky.

BECKY SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Hey there.

RASCOE: How has Moscow responded to Biden's words yesterday?

SULLIVAN: First off, that was just a really striking moment for Biden yesterday. He's really taken quite this measured response so far to Russia throughout this whole crisis. So it was a big deal for him to apparently appear to call for regime change. And, you know, just to say what he said, this quote, "for God's sake, this man cannot remain in power." The White House, as you know, of course, just tried to walk that back afterward. They continue to say that what Biden actually meant was that Putin shouldn't have power over Ukraine and power over the region. And so far, we've not actually seen that much of a response from Moscow yet. Last night, Dmitry Peskov, who is a Kremlin spokesperson, said, quote, "it's not up to the president of the U.S. and not up to the Americans to decide who will remain in power in Russia."

RASCOE: Around the same time of Biden's speech, there were some Russian strikes on Lviv last night, right? Like, was there any connection to Biden's remarks?

SULLIVAN: I mean, I think there's not been an explicit connection between those two things. And just to give some background here, of course, like Lviv being the city in western Ukraine that's quite close to the Polish border, that's been a relative safe haven throughout this whole conflict. Russia fired cruise missiles on central Lviv last night from Crimea. Ukrainian officials have said there, they hit two military targets, an oil and gas terminal and a tank factory. Both facilities were in residential parts of town. But as you're suggesting here, the mayor of Lviv - his name is Andriy Sadovyi - last night, he suggested that those two things could be connected. Let's listen to him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANDRIY SADOVYI: I think that with today's strikes, the aggressor wants to say hello to President Biden, who is currently in Poland. And Lviv is, of course, only 70 kilometers from the Polish border. So I think the world has to understand. It has to be clear to everyone that the threat is very, very serious.

SULLIVAN: And so the mayor did add that they had removed military equipment from Lviv just after the war started. So it was just the buildings that were damaged. But still, it's just a very rattling moment for people in that city. Hundreds of thousands of refugees have come to Lviv seeking safety. A lot of humanitarian workers are based there and so on.

RASCOE: You're in Dnipro now. Where is that and what's the situation there?

SULLIVAN: Yeah. To give you a sense of the geography here, the invasion of Ukraine has taken the shape of a backward sea. So if you start from Kyiv in the north and then you curve around Ukraine's eastern border, down along its southern coast, through Mariupol and past Crimea, right in the middle of that sea is this city, Dnipro, which has so far been safe from any sort of invasion or major fighting. But it's a lot closer to the front lines. And that's very visible here in a lot of ways. Yesterday, we went to city hall and sandbags are stacked high outside, highway signs are painted over to confuse, you know, potential Russian invaders. And it's a river city with a lot of bridges over the huge Dnieper River here. And the waterfront sidewalks underneath those bridges are all blocked off by barbed wire now and sandbags and armed guards.

RASCOE: With Dnipro so close to the front lines, what's the atmosphere like there? How are people feeling?

SULLIVAN: You know, it's actually really interesting. Everybody is sort of, like, all in on the war effort. Yesterday, I visited this trendy pizza place near downtown that has repurposed their kitchen to pump out a thousand meals a day for the territorial defense volunteers. Their landlord says they don't have to pay rent anymore. You know, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said, you know, not to pay taxes or utilities. So they're just focusing on meals for now. And, like, big picture here, Ukraine and Russia are in ongoing negotiations about how to end this conflict, but the two sides are so seemingly far apart. And so folks here are sort of a bit split on what they'd like to see.

But I'll tell you about this one guy who I think represents the feelings of a lot of different people. He's a trauma surgeon who works in one of the city's hospital. Every day, he treats soldiers coming in from the frontlines with bullet and shrapnel wounds. And I asked him, just what is the worst-case scenario, he thinks? And he replied, being Russia. He doesn't want to leave Dnipro. He doesn't want to live under occupation. He said, we must win by any means.

RASCOE: And that's NPR's Becky Sullivan in the Ukrainian city of Dnipro. Thank you so much, and stay safe.

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