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How much did Russia's war with Ukraine change in a single weekend?

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

How much did Ukraine's war change in a single weekend? Ukrainian forces have been on the offensive in multiple areas. And on Saturday and Sunday, Russian forces appeared to collapse in the northeast. Russian forces made a hasty and sometimes disorganized retreat toward their own country's borders. NPR's Elissa Nadworny is in Ukraine's capital, Kyiv. Hey there, Elissa.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Hello.

INSKEEP: So how much did the Ukrainians advance?

NADWORNY: So Ukrainian officials claim to have recaptured more than 1,200 square miles since the beginning of September.

INSKEEP: Wow.

NADWORNY: The Institute for the Study of War in D.C. is reporting that Ukraine has captured nearly all of the Kharkiv region. So that's in the country's northeast. Over the weekend, people were glued to their phones, just watching towns get taken, checking to see what was next. They've made it to Izium, Balakliya and Kupiansk, all of which are strategic places in the Kharkiv region, places that have been controlled by Russian forces for the last six months. Given videos and photos we've seen, Russian forces left in a hurry, leaving a lot of valuable weapons behind.

INSKEEP: And I get the impression that the Russians are not denying they've been backing up.

NADWORNY: Right. So Russia's ministry of defense and the Kremlin have not officially acknowledged the counteroffensive. But Russian military maps show that the front line in the east has moved significantly and not in the Russians' favor. Over the weekend, Russia's Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov confirmed that forces withdrew from Balakliya and Izium.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

IGOR KONASHENKOV: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: He didn't call it a retreat. He called it a regrouping in order to scale up efforts further southeast.

INSKEEP: I just want to put this in perspective. Twelve hundred square miles is a lot of territory. But it's a tiny, tiny sliver, really, of Ukraine and really only a small sliver of what the Russians have occupied. How significant are these advances?

NADWORNY: Izium and Kupiansk, these are transportation and supply hubs for the Russian forces. So they're a base from which they could launch attacks on the Donbas and the Donetsk regions. So it's a big loss strategically for Russia. We talked with Serhiy Cherivody (ph). He's a colonel and a spokesman of Ukraine's eastern task force.

SERHIY CHERIVODY: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: He says capturing this territory is going to limit Russia's ability to shell Kharkiv and other Ukrainian-held towns and cities along the eastern front. He says part of the aim is psychological, to make the Russians panic and scramble. But meanwhile, in the south, Russian forces are dug in deep near Kherson and the Black Sea. That's been a Ukrainian counteroffensive that's ongoing but just hasn't had the same traction as the one in the northeast.

INSKEEP: Have the Russians tried to strike back even as their troops are backing up?

NADWORNY: Yeah. According to the Ukrainian military update this morning, Russian forces fired more than 50 missiles and airstrikes into Ukraine over the last day. They hit critical infrastructure, causing what President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called a total blackout in places like Kharkiv and Sumy, parts of Dnipro. Many places were able to restore power, at least partially, within hours.

INSKEEP: What is life like in some of the areas that have been recaptured in recent weeks by the Ukrainians?

NADWORNY: We were pretty close to this recaptured area. But we were still in Ukrainian-held territory over the weekend in a place called Sloviansk. It's a city just south and east of Izium. We were visiting people who are housebound. And there was a ton of action when we were there, lots of explosions and mixed emotions, because there's also a real sense of fatigue and fear.

ANNA: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: That's Anna. She's 85 and bedridden. She doesn't want us to use her last name for fear. You know, she says, I don't sleep. There is still no heat. She's afraid of dying alone. And I think it's a good reminder that this offensive may have caught the Russians by surprise, but it doesn't mean this war is anywhere near over.

INSKEEP: NPR's Elissa Nadworny. Thanks so much.

NADWORNY: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.