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Weekend Russian drone attack comes as Ukrainian forces prepare for counteroffensive

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

As the war in Ukraine enters its 16th month, over the weekend, Russia launched its biggest drone strike since the war began.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Ukrainian officials say the attacks that continue today are mostly targeting the capital, Kyiv. The drone strike comes as Ukraine prepares for or may have already started, depending on who you talk to, a long-awaited counteroffensive aimed at driving out the Russian forces.

MARTÍNEZ: Joining us now from Kharkiv is NPR's Joanna Kakissis. Joanna, tell us about these attacks.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: So right now, A, I'm in Kharkiv, which you mentioned, and it's close to the Russian border, and air raid alarms have been going off every few hours. But the real target has actually been Ukraine's capital, Kyiv. Russia has attacked Kyiv more than a dozen times this month alone. Early this morning, the Ukrainian military says it shot down more than 40 missiles and drones over Kyiv overnight. And yesterday, on the day Kyiv celebrated its 1,541st birthday, Russia launched a record number of drones at the city. And these are powerful Shahed drones made by Iran. Ukraine's military said it shot down all but two of these drones very early on Sunday. And falling debris from the drone wreckage killed at least one person, injured another two and set fire to the top of a couple of buildings.

MARTÍNEZ: You know, we keep hearing about a Ukrainian counteroffensive. Johanna, do these attacks have anything to do with that?

KAKISSIS: Yeah, well, A, that's what military analysts suspect, that the Russians are trying to weaken Ukraine ahead of the counteroffensive. Russia appears to be trying to deplete Ukraine's air defense missiles and damage the systems that launch these missiles. Meanwhile, Ukraine has been saying for weeks that it's on the verge of launching its counteroffensive, but they've ramped up this talk in the last few days. And some officials are saying, well, we are already carrying out counteroffensive actions. Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar tried to explain what that means on local TV. Here she is speaking through an interpreter.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HANNA MALIAR: (Through interpreter) We have been active in several areas and are now carrying out some counterassaults in the east. This can also be considered part of the counteroffensive. They are all part of a big plan.

KAKISSIS: And other officials have pointed to more actions, like destroying Russian oil depots, railway lines and weapon stockpiles in occupied areas. I spoke to the special forces fighter in southern Ukraine, and he told me, look, do not expect this counteroffensive to look like this epic World War II movie with, like, a huge column of soldiers storming a place. He said it's all happening quietly and according to plan.

MARTÍNEZ: OK, so then what would victory look like in this counteroffensive?

KAKISSIS: Well, the Ukrainians want to reclaim as much land as possible toward the eventual goal of driving the Russians out completely. But it's going to be challenging. Russians control about 15% of Ukrainian land in the east and the south. And Russian forces have really fortified their positions in the southeast, where analysts have suggested Ukrainians could break through and cut the road supply links for the Russian army. All this is to say that Ukrainians need some kind of victory to keep the nation united and hopeful and to satisfy the West, which has supplied billions of dollars in military aid to help Ukraine.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Joanna Kakissis in Kharkiv. Joanna, thanks for checking in.

KAKISSIS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.