ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
A senior Russian military commander said today that Moscow wants to control Ukraine's Donbas region to the east and the entirety of the country's south. It would connect Russia to the Crimean Peninsula that it annexed in 2014 and to a pro-Russian separatist enclave that's clear across southern Ukraine in Moldova.
NPR's Eyder Peralta joins us from Kharkiv to discuss the latest developments. Hi, Eyder.
EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.
SHAPIRO: How are these revelations being received in Ukraine? Are people preparing for what sounds like a long offensive?
PERALTA: Look; in a lot of ways, this is what Ukrainian leaders have been warning about. They have said that Russia was just taking a break and that they had intentions that are much bigger than the Donbas region. Russia has just acknowledged that they are not only interested in all of southern Ukraine but that they're also eyeing the pro-Russian separatist region in Moldova. The military officials I've spoken to here say they know what's coming and that they're prepared.
SHAPIRO: And this comes as we are hearing about what city officials call mass graves outside the port city of Mariupol, holding remains of as many as 9,000 people. You are north of Mariupol, which has been another frontline in this war. Tell us what you're seeing.
PERALTA: So look; first, a little about what we know about these mass graves in Mariupol, and it comes from satellite images - it shows that there are about 200 of them. And this is not out of line with what even the U.N. Human Rights Agency is saying. They say they've documented some 2,400 civilian deaths in this conflict. And here in this city, in Kharkiv and especially the areas around here, civilians are under constant bombardment. Every day we're hearing shelling. We're seeing plumes of smoke. The emergency services say that they're pulling bodies out of buildings.
Yesterday, we went to a small town called Mala Rohan, which is just east of here and about an hour's drive to the Russian border. We went there to try and get a sense of how this war is being fought. Let's listen. And a warning - there are sounds of explosions in this piece.
(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOOR SLAMMING)
PERALTA: In the middle of a field, we see the charred carcasses of a tank and a helicopter. Both have the letter Z painted in white, which is how Russians tag their equipment. According to our military escort, the village of Mala Rohan just east of Kharkiv was liberated at the end of March, but this helicopter was shot down days ago. As we step out, we get another reminder that this battle is not yet over.
TATIANA: (Non-English language spoken).
(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)
PERALTA: Tatiana, a military escort, says a lot of people have died here - civilians, Ukrainian soldiers and Russian soldiers, too, who she says they buried in a mass grave on the side of a hill. The Russians lost the first battle in this war, she says.
TATIANA: (Through interpreter) And now they are, like, desperate, and they just shoot whatever they can hit, like, blindly.
(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSIONS)
PERALTA: We see a plume of smoke rising in the distance. Most people in this town have fled. But 67-year-old Natalia Blizniuk says she has nowhere to go even though her house is in tatters.
NATALIA BLIZNIUK: (Through interpreter) The roof is broken. The windows are broken. They have spent a lot of time in the basement. Well, there's shelling everywhere around the village.
PERALTA: Do you understand what this war is about? What is it about?
BLIZNIUK: (Through interpreter) They don't understand. Who knows who's right and whose fault it is? We need peace. That's the only that we need.
PERALTA: Residents we spoke to say it's unclear which army destroyed what.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR SLAMMING)
PERALTA: Across town, Ukrainian soldiers walk into a bombed-out warehouse. Russian soldiers turned it into a base, but a Ukrainian rocket smashed through the walls and into the basement, leaving everything coated in black soot. Captain Daniil looks through the spoils. The Russians left in a hurry.
DANIIL: And it's possible because our forces come here very fast.
PERALTA: In their haste, Russian soldiers left medicine, food, rubber boots. Daniil steps in front of a table full of unused bullets.
(SOUNDBITE OF BULLETS CLINKING)
PERALTA: He says, the irony of fate. He's methodical. One at a time, he flicks the bullets into his palm.
DANIIL: (Through interpreter) Now these bullets will kill the people who brought them here.
PERALTA: All of the Ukrainian soldiers we speak to are full of conviction. This is a war for freedom. It's a war of Russian aggression. We drive to the outskirts of town to a Ukrainian military position.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)
PERALTA: Second Lieutenant Dmitrii says this war has become an artillery battle.
DMITRII: (Through interpreter) The Russians - they are not very good at fighting. They are good at shelling and sending rockets. But when they are close, they have a lot of casualties.
PERALTA: So in this region every day, shells, mortars and unguided missiles are lobbed in the general direction of Ukrainian positions. They destroy homes, businesses, schools, even health facilities. The human suffering, says Second Lieutenant Dmitrii, is the thing that makes this so heartbreaking.
Do you think there's a chance for peace here?
DMITRII: (Through interpreter) The peace will be after the victory because they - you can't make any agreements with people like this after everything they have done.
PERALTA: The human suffering, he says, is also the thing that will make this war so hard to untangle.
Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Mala Rohan.
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