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Russia is focusing on 3 key agricultural cities in Ukraine's southeast

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, HOST:

Russia's campaign to capture the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine grinds on, but Russia's ambitions are not limited to that area. Its forces control considerable land in southern Ukraine, and they're trying to capture more. We're joined by NPR's Peter Granitz, who's in Odesa in the southwest of the country. Peter, good morning.

PETER GRANITZ, BYLINE: Good morning, Danielle.

KURTZLEBEN: So tell us more about the region that Russia is angling for here. What are the main cities, and why are they important to Russia?

GRANITZ: We're talking about the area around Kherson and Mykolaiv. Now, that's southwest of the Donbas. Military analysts at the Institute for the Study of War call it the southern axis. It's not the primary goal of Russia. That remains the Donbas. But it's just another front in the war. You'll remember that Kherson was actually the first city to fall to Russia in the first days of the war. And much of this area's agricultural - a lot of wheat, barley farms, some canola being grown for cooking oil - and the cities are logistics hubs that are focused on getting that food out of the country. There's been fighting along the line of Russian control recently. Ukrainian forces say there are counteroffensives in the Kherson region, and they claim to have liberated some villages in recent days. You know, we cannot independently verify the claims, but both Russian and Ukrainian telegram channels have reported on Ukrainian advances there.

KURTZLEBEN: Now, you mentioned the city of Mykolaiv there. You traveled there recently. What can you tell us about how the conflict is playing out on the ground?

GRANITZ: Well, there's no ground-fighting at the moment. The attacks come from the sky. I met with the regional governor there. His name is Vitaliy Kim, and Danielle, he's kind of this local celebrity. When we met, he was vaping, and he was wearing a T-shirt that had Boba Fett in Ukrainian colors, kicking a Russian cosmonaut in the head. We met in front of what was once his office. It was a 10-story building that Russia destroyed with a cruise missile two months ago. Thirty-six people died in that attack. Vitaliy Kim speaks with quite a bit of bravado about repelling Russian forces from the city earlier in the war.

VITALIY KIM: We pulled them back to the border of the Kherson region, and for now we're on active defense. We have best quality of our military forces. Russian forces are demotivated. They just have an order to stay and to defend this line.

GRANITZ: There are no signs of any imminent ground attacks, and those claimed counteroffensives - those are south of here in Russian-controlled territory. But half the population of the region has fled, and Kim says they should not come back, that it's not safe. There is near daily shelling in the city of Mykolaiv. And yesterday missiles hit the city for the first time in a month, and at least two people were killed, and 20 more were hurt.

KURTZLEBEN: So are those people who have stayed able to continue on with anything resembling normal life?

GRANITZ: You do see some signs of regular life. There are people playing basketball at the park. You see a lot of bikes zipping through town. But many, many businesses are closed and even boarded up. Some streets in the city are just empty. The area around the port was just eerily quiet. It's a massive facility with no activity going on. It's clear that this is a big city near the frontlines of the war. When we drove in, we saw buses of children being driven out, and on the road into town, we passed missiles and tanks being trucked in. Now, we should be clear that some of those could be going further east into the active battle zone. Vitaliy Kim says he can't tell us about where military equipment is actually going. But Danielle, in town, there's no drinking water, and it's a really hard way to live. Water is trucked in from outside of the region. I met a woman named Anastasia Zanatova (ph), who was filling up 10 jugs from a tap connected to one of those trucks that brought in potable water.

ANASTASIA ZANATOVA: (Non-English language spoken).

GRANITZ: Danielle, the air raid sirens had just gone off, and Anastasia says she's nervous and that her kids wake up at night crying when they hear the explosions.

KURTZLEBEN: That's NPR's Peter Granitz in Odesa, Ukraine. Thanks, Peter.

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