War in Ukraine live updates: U.S. nears passage of billions more in aid; why Russia's air force has been humbled

Published May 11, 2022 at 8:38 AM EDT
A woman photographs the remains of Russian military aircraft on display May 8 as part of the exhibition "Ukraine: Crucifixion" at the National Museum of the History of Ukraine in the Second World War in Kyiv, Ukraine.
Alexey Furman
Getty Images
A woman photographs the remains of Russian military aircraft on display May 8 as part of the exhibition "Ukraine: Crucifixion" at the National Museum of the History of Ukraine in the Second World War in Kyiv, Ukraine.

The House has approved another wave of significant funding to aid Ukraine. Lawmakers say the $40 billion will help meet ongoing needs as the country continues to battle Russian attacks. Both the Senate and President Biden are expected to approve it quickly.

Here's what we're following:

Despite its massive air force, Russia hasn't been able to control the skies over Ukraine. That defies military experts' earlier predictions that Russia's far larger and more modern fleet would dominate that of its neighbor, and strengthens Ukraine's supply lines and combat on the ground.

Ukrainian musicians have reached the finals of this year's Eurovision contest. Rap-folk band Kalush Orchestra is favored by bookmakers to win the competition on Saturday.

Ukraine’s natural gas pipeline operator has halted Russian shipments through an important hub in the country’s east, a move which could disrupt supplies to the rest of Europe.

Newsmaker interview

Here's why the NATO deputy secretary general thinks Ukraine will prevail

Posted May 11, 2022 at 11:40 AM EDT
A white man in a suit and blue tie gestures while standing and speaking in front of several red, blue and white flags.
Petras Malukas
AFP via Getty Images
NATO Deputy Secretary General Mircea Geoană speaks at a press conference in Rukla, Lithuania, on February 9, 2022.

What can NATO do to influence the outcome of Russia's war in Ukraine? And what kind of risk calculations are NATO members making as they support Ukraine and try to avoid escalation with Russia?

Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep posed these and other questions to NATO Deputy Secretary General Mircea Geoană.

Geoană calls the conflict a "Russian imperial fantasy based on the idea that Ukraine does not exist, based on the idea that the West will be not as united as we are today and basically feeding false narratives in our public opinions that this is NATO's fault."

Ukraine will prevail, he says, with the help of NATO allies and partners in Europe and around the world.

Listen to their conversation and read on for highlights.

Russia invaded Ukraine unprovoked, and has suffered heavy losses and global sanctions. So what could move President Vladimir Putin to end the war? Geoană says Putin's original intention was the total occupation of Ukraine, or removing and replacing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his government.

He says those "original, maximalistic intentions" have been a huge strategic failure for Russia, which lost the battle for Kyiv and is now facing a Ukranian counteroffensive in other parts of the country. Geoană says the conflict could continue for a long period of time, but notes that things look more and more promising for Ukraine as Russia depletes its forces, munitions and morale.

Defining success and victory, he adds, is up to Zelenskyy and his people.

In the meantime, NATO countries are openly supporting Ukraine, including by providing its military with supplies, despite the risk of provoking Putin.

Geoană says NATO leadership has a "triple obligation:" to support Ukraine, to defend its members and to avoid escalation with Russia. "All three fronts can be done and will be done together," he says.


Ukraine tries its first Russian soldier for alleged war crimes

Posted May 11, 2022 at 11:14 AM EDT
A woman in a green coat and hat with Ukrainian flag speaks to a group of men, one of whom wears a jacket reading "war crimes prosecutor."
Fadel Senna
AFP via Getty Images
Ukraine's Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova visits a mass grave in Bucha on April 13, 2022, during a visit by the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court.

The office of Ukraine's prosecutor general announced on Wednesday that it is opening its first war crimes trial, in the case of a Russian soldier accused of killing a civilian.

Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova, writing on Facebook, identified the soldier as 21-year-old Vadim Shishimarin — a member of the elite 4th Guards Tank Division and said he is currently in custody. The events in question took place Feb. 28 in Chupakhivka, a village in the Sumy region about 180 miles east of Kyiv.

A pretrial investigation found that Shishimarin and four colleagues, fleeing an attack by Ukrainian defense forces, fired at and seized a private car, which they used to drive into the village. On the way, they saw a man talking on a phone while walking his bicycle along the sidewalk.

Venediktova said that one of the other soldiers ordered Shishimarin to kill the civilian "so he would not report them to Ukrainian defenders." Investigators say Shishimarin fired his Kalashnikov several times through the car window, shooting the unarmed 62-year-old in the head.

"The man died on the spot just a few dozens of meters from his house," she added.

She said that prosecutors have collected “enough evidence of his involvement in violation of the laws and customs of war combined with premeditated murder," for which Shishimarin faces either 10-15 years in prison or life in prison.

“Shishimarin is actually physically in Ukraine,” Venediktova told Ukraine’s public broadcaster, according to the The Washington Post. “We are starting a trial not in absentia, but rather directly with the person who killed a civilian, and this is a war crime.”

More such trials could be on the horizon. Venediktova said last week that Russia has committed nearly 10,000 war crimes since invading Ukraine in late February.

International Dispatch
From Ukraine

Thousands of Ukrainians have died from lack of healthcare, says WHO

Posted May 11, 2022 at 10:31 AM EDT
Dr. Kluge sits at a table with mic, he wears a suit and glasses.
Alexander Astafyev
SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images
WHO Regional Director for Europe Dr. Hans Kluge in 2020.

KYIV — The World Health Organization is warning that thousands of Ukrainians have died from lack of proper medical care since the Russian invasion began in February.

The mass displacement of people and the closure of medical facilities are proving fatal, Dr. Hans Kluge, the head of the WHO’s Regional Office for Europe, said yesterday.

At least 3,000 people who needed regular medical treatment already have died in Ukraine because the war made it impossible for them to access adequate health care, he said. The WHO says people needing treatment for cancer and HIV are particularly vulnerable.

And the problem is ongoing. The mayor of Mariupol says thousands more could die in his besieged city alone from lack of access to sanitation, clean drinking water and proper medical care.

Many of the people remaining in Mariupol, he notes, are elderly who were too frail to flee. He says disease and the collapse of the health care system could lead to another wave of deaths in the coming weeks in the beleaguered city.

International Dispatch

Leonid Kravchuk, the first president of an independent Ukraine, dies at 88

Posted May 11, 2022 at 9:52 AM EDT
 A man in a suit and round glasses sits at a table, with his hand on a binder of papers, in front of a small Ukrainian flag.
Georges Bendrihem
AFP via Getty Images
Then-Ukrainian president Leonid Kravchuk signs a security and cooperation agreement with France in June 1992 in Paris.

Tributes to the first leader and elder statesman of an independent Ukraine poured in from around the country overnight after President Leonid Kravchuk died yesterday at the age of 88. He is remembered for helping dismantle the Soviet Union in relative peace.

In 1991, Kravchuk was the head of the Communist Party in Ukraine — a person who was supposed to be loyal to the regime in Moscow. But when he met in secret with his counterparts from Belarus and Russia that year, they hatched a plan for the three Soviet republics to part ways.

"You have to understand that Ukraine was effectively a colony of Russia. Sure, this colony rewarded careerists who were ready to serve the colonial regime, but you had to revoke your Ukrainian identity as a condition," said Vitaliy Portnikov. "Not everybody was willing to do that, even if they were doing good work for the colonizing power. Kravchuk was this kind of person, and he wasn't the only one."

Portnikov was a student when he met Kravchuk in the 1980s. He had gotten to know a tight circle of Ukrainian nationalists who were working for independence. When he met Kravchuk, he didn't expect to find much in common with the nationalists.

"I saw a Soviet sitting across from me, and not just any Soviet, but a secretary of the Central Committee of Ukraine's Communist Party," said Portnikov, but when realizing Kravchuk would push independence through, "I had a moment of joy...it was a fateful moment."

Portnikov is now a national broadcaster who has seen all of the country's presidents come and go. Without Kravchuk, he says, Ukraine wouldn’t have had the institutions needed to survive.

Read more here.


A fan-favorite band from Ukraine advances to the Eurovision grand final

Posted May 11, 2022 at 9:10 AM EDT
Musicians wearing a pink bucket hat and colorful clothes wave Ukrainian flags on a blue stage with green shrubs.
Marco Bertorello
AFP via Getty Images
Members of Ukraine's band "Kalush Orchestra" celebrate their qualification during the first semifinal of the Eurovision Song contest 2022 on Tuesday at the Palalpitour venue in Turin.

Ten countries advanced last night from the first round of Eurovision semi-finals to the final round of the songwriting competition, which will take place on Saturday in Turin, Italy.

Among them was Ukraine, represented by rap-folk band Kalush Orchestra. The three-member group — with their iconic pink bucket hat, energetic breakdancer and colorful traditional clothing — is favored to win the competition, with bookmaker Parimatch Ukraine putting their odds at 73% on Wednesday. (Votes are cast by professional juries and viewers from the participating countries.)

They received a standing ovation after last night's performance, during which Ukraine's Eurovision commentator could be seen broadcasting from a bomb shelter. And it wasn't just Ukrainian fans rooting for them: Acts from other countries, including Lithuania and Iceland, showed their support for Ukraine with statements and symbols.

The core members of the group, which was founded as Kalush in 2019, are Oleh Psiuk, multi-instrumentalist Ihor Didenchuk, and dancer Vlad Kurochka, also known as MC Kilimmen.

They launched Kalush Orchestra, which combines hip-hop with elements of traditional Ukrainian folk music, in 2021 with additional musicians, including Tymofii Muzychuk, Vitalii Duzhyk, and Dzhonni Dyvny.

The band's Eurovision entry, "Stefania," is a unique earworm combining old Ukranian melodies and traditional flute with contemporary beats and rap. The performance itself included both folk dancing and break dancing, and the musicians wore a mix of embroidered Cossack shirts and modern streetwear.

Psiuk wrote "Stefania" about his own mother before Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Since then, many Ukrainians have come to associate the song — with translated lyrics like "I will always walk to you by broken roads" and "the field blooms, but she is turning gray" — with their own motherland.

“After it all started with the war and the hostilities, it took on additional meaning, and many people started seeing it as their mother, Ukraine, in the meaning of the country," Psiuk told theAssociated Press last week. "It has become really close to the hearts of so many people in Ukraine."

The song has broad popularity in countries across northern Europe, where it's climbing up several Spotify charts.

While Eurovisioncalls itself a nonpolitical event, Russia's war in Ukraine has loomed large in the international competition. Organizers banned Russian acts back in February, and Kalush Orchestra replaced Ukraine's original contestant, Alina Pash, after the country's national broadcaster suspended her while investigating a 2015 trip she made to Crimea.

The all-male group needed special permission from Ukrainian authorities to travel to Italy for the contest, as the country has banned men of fighting age from leaving the country. One original band member stayed behind to fight, the AP reports, and all plan to return to Ukraine after Eurovision ends.

While they are hoping to boost Ukrainians' morale with a win, they have said in interviews that shining a global spotlight on the country's culture and identity is in itself a form of victory.

"We understand that we must be totally focused and concentrated, because we are here to show that Ukrainian culture and Ukrainian music exist," Psiuk said at a press conference, according to an English translation. "They are alive and they have a very beautiful and special signature. So we are totally focused on this purpose."


Fighting stops Russian gas flow through a major Ukraine hub, risking Europe's supply

Posted May 11, 2022 at 8:38 AM EDT

Ukraine’s natural gas pipeline operator has halted Russian shipments through an important hub in the country’s east, a move which could disrupt supplies to the rest of Europe.

The Gas Transmissions System Operator of Ukraine says the stoppage is due to ongoing fighting there; the Novopskov pipeline hub is in a part of Ukraine's Luhansk region that is occupied by Russian-backed separatists.

Russia says the hub manages about a quarter of Russian gas passing through Ukraine to the rest of Europe. Ukraine says the figure is closer to a third.

“Some of the gas flows could be diverted to other interconnection points,” says Aleksandra Gawlikowska-Fyk, director of the Power Sector Program at Forum Energii, a think tank in Warsaw, Poland. “For that reason, the gas flows will still be possible via Ukraine.”

But she adds that it all depends on agreements between Ukraine and Russia. Ukraine says it’s trying to re-route the gas but Russian gas giant Gazprom says switching paths is too complicated.


Why Russia's massive air force hasn't done it much good in Ukraine

Posted May 11, 2022 at 8:38 AM EDT
Three rows of three jets fly in a pattern across the blue sky, next to a blue and gold onion dome.
Kirill Kudryavtsev
AFP via Getty Images
Russian fighter jets fly over downtown Moscow during a rehearsal for the WWII Victory Parade last Wednesday.

Despite its massive air force, Russia hasn't been able to control the skies over Ukraine — which helps make it possible for Ukrainians to keep fighting, and for Western allies to keep shipping them supplies.

That defies military experts' earlier predictions. Industry trade journal FlightGlobal estimates that the Russian air force has some 1,500 military aircraft, far exceeding Ukraine's estimated 100. And their jets are more modern and lethal, too.

"It's a great problem to fight with their fighters for us because they have an advantage in technology. Unfortunately our jets are not able to be effective against them," says a Ukrainian pilot who goes by the call-sign Juice. (NPR isn't allowed to use his real name for security reasons.)

So why has Russia's air campaign gone so wrong? There are a few possible factors, including the state of its fleet and the strong Ukrainian defense.

NPR's Brian Mann spoke to Ukrainian fighter pilots and military experts about how Ukraine has managed to control its airspace, and what that means for the war as a whole.

Listen to his reporting onMorning Edition and keep reading for more details.

Logistical support, Ukranian defenses and other factors

Some experts believe Russia's fleet of aircraft, while massive, hasn't been well-maintained. Russia also doesn't appear to have the logistical support, such as fuel and spare parts, needed to keep their jets flying.

Another factor is the Ukranians' air-defense efforts. Mann explains that in the years after Russia first annexed Crimea and invaded the Donbas in 2014, Ukraine developed a sophisticated system that uses their fighter planes and surface-to-air missile systems.

The Ukrainians he spoke with believe that Russian pilots don't have the training or experience to handle that kind of threat.

"Sometimes we are able to hear their communications," says a Ukrainian MIG pilot who goes by the call-sign Moonfish. "When you hear those they are actually really scared.  If anything goes wrong they just turn away."

Experts believe the Ukrainians will get even better at defending their air space, in part because of the supply of better anti-aircraft weapons coming in from the U.S., Germany and other allies.

The U.S. could be playing a role, too. A senior U.S. defense official told NPR that Ukraine's air force is getting real-time intelligence from the U.S.

Russia has power in numbers

Still, Russia has had certain successes in its air campaign. For example, Russian long-range bombers are launching some cruise missiles from as far away as the Caspian Sea. While experts say that's not necessarily a game-changer, those missiles are damaging infrastructure and killing civilians.

Ukrainian officials also acknowledge that the Russians have established air dominance over parts of the Donbas region in the east, where some of the heaviest fighting is underway. But that's just a fraction of the country, Mann notes, and much of Ukraine remains effectively a no-fly zone for Russian planes.

What's happening in the air affects supplies and logistics on the ground

Ukraine's control of its own airspace is critical for its operations, Mann says. Because it's a vast country and the danger of Russian air attack is relatively limited, trains and supply trucks largely are able to get around. That means the military can ship ammunition, weapons and other supplies all the way to the front lines. It means critical cities like Kyiv and Odesa are well-supplied too.

Experts tell Mann that if Russian aircraft were patrolling overhead and able to drop bombs at will, the way they did in Syria for instance, the war would look entirely different.


The House has approved $40 billion in new aid for Ukraine

Posted May 11, 2022 at 8:38 AM EDT
A shot of the city from high up shows destroyed buildings and debris.
STRINGER/AFP via Getty Images
The city of Mariupol Tuesday,

The House has approved another wave of significant funding to aid Ukraine. Lawmakers say the money will help meet ongoing needs as the country continues to battle Russian attacks.

The House voted 368-57 to pass the bill Tuesday.

Democrats pushed to approve the $40 billion in additional aid for Ukraine, which is an increase from $33 billion President Biden previously requested. House Appropriations Committee Chair Rosa DeLauro urged lawmakers to approve the new assistance.

"We need to protect global democracy, limiting Russian aggression in the longer term, and strengthening our own national security. Failure is not an option." DeLauro said.

This follows a $13.6 billion Ukraine aide package approved in March. The new assistance would help address Ukrainian equipment, training and weapon needs.

While all 57 no votes came from Republicans, the plan for additional Ukraine aid has drawn strong bipartisan support. Next the aid package will head to the Senate, where it is expected to pass quickly.