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Russia makes a tactical advance in Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

In Ukraine, Russia and mercenaries aligned with the Kremlin have made small advances in recent days. Officials say intense fighting is continuing in and around the eastern city of Bakhmut.

DWANE BROWN, HOST:

Those advances could lead to Bakhmut becoming encircled. It would be a rare military victory for Russia, however small.

FADEL: To understand what this means for the ongoing war in Ukraine, we turn to NPR's Elissa Nadworny, who's in Kyiv.

Morning, Elissa.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: So a rare Russian success - how big of a deal is this?

NADWORNY: Yeah. So we're actually talking about a small settlement in the eastern part of Ukraine in the Donbas. The Wagner group, a mercenary force run by a friend of Vladimir Putin, has been fighting to take this area since summer. So there is conflicting word on who controls this village of Soledar, known for its salt mine. Ukraine's defense ministry says fighting is still happening.

The leader of Wagner has been posting to Telegram with tempered gains. Capturing Soledar - that would allow Russia to potentially envelop Bakhmut. These minor tactical advances - like, we're talking block-by-block gains by Russia - they're significant mostly because Russia has struggled to make any operational gains. So they're standing out because they're so rare. But it doesn't mean it's a Russian turning point.

Karolina Hird is a Russia analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, and she says the real significance is the cost of this advance for Russia.

KAROLINA HIRD: The Ukrainians have very, very successfully pinned Russian forces up against Soledar and Bakhmut for six months and use this to basically just continue pulling Russian troops, Russian equipment to this area and basically burning through it.

NADWORNY: Hird made clear that the Russian capture of Soledar - it doesn't guarantee that Bakhmut will be encircled.

FADEL: OK, Elissa, but help us understand the significance of Bakhmut. Like, why does Russia want this area so badly?

NADWORNY: Yeah. So - well, there is a highway system that runs through Bakhmut, which is helpful for Ukrainian communication, moving troops. President Zelenskyy recently visited Bakhmut just before his trip to the U.S. Congress. And hold Bakhmut has kind of become this rallying cry here in Ukraine. The fighting there, Zelenskyy said, has brought Ukraine additional time and military power. I talked with Oleh Zhdanov, a Ukrainian military expert here. He says for Russia and the Wagner group, winning here sends a strong message home.

OLEH ZHDANOV: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "For Russia," he says, "there's no real military significance to Bakhmut. Rather, it's a political one, a message that Putin and the Wagner group can bring back to the Russian people."

FADEL: OK. I'm going to take a turn for a second. The U.S. says it's going to start training Ukrainian soldiers in the United States. How could that help Ukraine?

NADWORNY: Well, it's going to help defend against Russian air attacks, which have happened frequently throughout the (inaudible). So starting as early as next week, about a hundred Ukrainian troops will come to a military base in Oklahoma to get trained on the Patriot missile defense system. So this is a air defense weapon that Ukrainians have been asking for for quite some time. The training is going to happen at Fort Sill. And it's expected to last several months, according to the Pentagon. So that's defending the air.

For the ground fight, there are more weapons heading to Ukraine, among them armored vehicles from Germany, France and the U.S. And there's hope that this wave of weapons from Europe will keep growing, perhaps more from the U.K., others, like tanks, fighter jets and longer-range missiles.

FADEL: NPR's Elissa Nadworny in Kyiv. Thanks, Elissa, and stay safe.

NADWORNY: Thanks, Leila. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
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.