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Ukrainian forces aren't backing down, 5 days after Russian attacks began

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

By resisting a Russian invasion, Ukrainians have rallied much of the world behind their cause. European leaders took a range of steps over the weekend. They blocked Russian airlines from their airspace and also promised more weapons for Ukraine. The United States intensified its economic sanctions. Russia's currency, the ruble, crashed in value when markets opened today, and Russia's Central Bank had to more than double interest rates today. The pain was great enough that President Vladimir Putin talked of putting nuclear weapons on a higher state of alert. Russian and Ukrainian negotiators are now meeting just outside the country, though Ukraine's president says he doesn't expect too much. So how are people experiencing all of this inside Ukraine? We begin with NPR's Tim Mak, who is in Western Ukraine. Hey there, Tim.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Hey there.

INSKEEP: I want to mention that Kyiv, the capital, is still in Ukrainian hands. After five days of fighting here, Russian efforts to seize it quickly haven't worked. So what are the Russians trying now?

MAK: Well, so even as the Russian army advances on Kyiv, there's been this fear all along that Russian saboteurs might try to decapitate the leadership in the capital city in order to install their own regime. And that would be an easy way for the Russians to have control over the city. An adviser to the Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs confirmed a report that in Kyiv there are hundreds of Russia-aligned mercenaries from the Wagner Group, this private military company, and they have orders to assassinate President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and overthrow the current government. And so these reports come as Ukrainians, who are really outmatched by the Russian military's numbers and firepowers, have made a stand to keep the capital out of Russian hands, at least for now.

As I speak to you now, Steve, more than four days after the start of this large-scale invasion, the city still hasn't fallen to Russian troops, defying these initial Western intelligence assessments that it would fall in relatively short order. So from the Ukrainian side, there's a real sign of hope. In the south, though, more land appears to be in Russian hands. But Ukrainian morale remains quite high. This country is very united right now. I had this exchange with a member of Ukraine's Territorial Defense here in Western Ukraine.

If you had a message for the Russian military and Vladimir Putin, what would it be?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) Go home because you will die here.

INSKEEP: Well, there's another slogan that can go along with President Zelenskyy's statement that he wanted ammunition and not a ride out of the capital. With that said, the president has approved a proposal to talk with the Russian side. What's happening?

MAK: A Ukrainian delegation has arrived on the border of Belarus for negotiations with Russia, but it's unclear just how serious this effort is. As you mentioned, neither side really seems to be holding out much hope for an agreement or breakthrough. Belarus is not exactly neutral territory, right? The Russian troops launched part of its assault on Kyiv from that territory, and the Belarussian government is very close to Putin's. The Ukrainian delegation has said that it's got two items on its agenda - an immediate cease-fire and the withdrawal of Russian troops. Russia has said they want Ukraine to declare neutrality and give up its quest to join NATO. So they're quite far apart, to put it mildly.

INSKEEP: Tim, I want to ask about civilians. We hear elsewhere in the program today from our colleague Leila Fadel. She is, of course, just across the border from Ukraine in Poland, talking with some of the many, many thousands of people who have fled Ukraine. But there must be a lot of civilians who are remaining where they are and trying to get through their days.

MAK: Well, civilians are facing a pretty bleak outlook. I spoke to Sofia Kryvushko. She's a college senior who left the northeastern city of Kharkiv, less than 30 miles from the Russian border. It faced heavy artillery fire overnight.

SOFIA KRYVUSHKO: In Kharkiv, there is no food now. They can stand in the large queues for potato or something like that.

MAK: The U.N. has said more than 400,000 Ukrainian refugees have left the country.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Tim Mak. Thanks very much for your reporting on this day and many other days. He's in Western Ukraine. He's been in Ukraine since the shooting started the other day. Tim, thanks very much.

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