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The latest from Ukraine as Russian forces move toward Kyiv

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Earlier today, President Biden announced new sanctions that he says will target Russia's wealthiest and most powerful citizens - sanctions that will cut off Russia's largest banks from the U.S. financial system. The U.S. and its NATO allies announced further military deployments to its member nations on Russia's border. But all the international condemnation of Russia's invasion of Ukraine appears to be affecting Russian President Vladimir Putin not one bit. According to the Pentagon, three lines of Russian forces are moving towards Ukrainian cities, two of those columns towards the capital Kyiv. We'll have reporting from Washington elsewhere in this program, but we go now to Ukraine and to NPR's Eleanor Beardsley. Hi, Eleanor.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: So where exactly are you right now?

BEARDSLEY: Well, I'm in a hotel in central Ukraine a couple of hours south of Kyiv, along with a lot of families who fled the city. And tonight, I heard a little boy. He was going to bed, and he was scared. He thought he heard planes overhead, and his mother was trying to reassure him. And she asked me, did you hear them? Tell him you didn't hear any planes. So...

CHANG: Oh, goodness. But I understand that that's not where you were when the invasion began, right?

BEARDSLEY: No, I was in Kharkiv, which is 25 miles from the Russian border. It's in the east of Ukraine. It's Ukraine's second-largest city - 1.5 million people. About 5:00 a.m., there were explosions. It was still dark, and it came right after Putin gave the - you know, the beginning of the military action. And right there, you're confronted with that decision - do you stay, or do you go? And that is a very stressful moment. And I realize that was a decision that millions of Ukrainians had to make today.

So we set off about 5:30 in the morning, went about 400 miles today from east to central Ukraine. The highways were clogged - the back roads, too. You know, there were little - lot of cars packed, also fancy SUVs going fast. There were lines at gas stations. You'd go through towns, and you'd see people gathered outside ATM machines, getting their money out.

CHANG: Yeah. Well, I understand that, yesterday, you were reporting in the Donbas right outside the separatist regions, and I know that you were there as well eight years ago. What feels different to you this time?

BEARDSLEY: Right. Well, some of these towns are really close to the contact line where they've been fighting for eight years. You can't go into the separatist regions now. But when I was there eight years ago, they were becoming the separatist regions. And I remember visiting a town called Slovyansk that had just been taken over by the separatists. The town hall was barricaded with tires and all the, you know, things and sandbags everywhere, even on the inside. And there were men with their balaclavas, their faces covered, with guns - they were Russian - standing guard, you know, all over town, in front of the town hall.

A couple months later, the Ukrainian army took that town back. So today there were Ukrainian flags everywhere, and they had taken the Lenin statue down from its pedestal in front of the town hall. And I spoke with the mayor, Vadim Lyakh, and the town hall's been redone - no more sandbags. Here's what he told me. Here he is.

VADIM LYAKH: (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: He basically said that, you know, under the separatists and living so close to the separatists, they saw the propaganda, and they also - it was a horrible time when they were controlled by them. People felt threatened. They're very glad to be Ukrainian. And he said they have an action plan. People are staying calm. And I actually called him back today because I saw him yesterday, you know, after the invasion. And he said it was very sobering. He said they did not expect such a wide-scale attack - that people are staying inside mostly, but they're leaving the doors to their apartment blocks open so if there's any shelling, people can run inside.

CHANG: Right, right. Well, with so many people on the move today, I'm just curious, like, how available are the basics? Like, is there food, water, gasoline? Tell me about that.

BEARDSLEY: Well, I was in a grocery store today. I wanted to get some water, but I couldn't because the line was so long. The huge lines for gas - so I hope they're not running out. And then the hotels are filling up along the highways. People just kind of don't know where to go because so many places were attacked in the east, the south, you know, the capital. But one thing is true - west is best, and people are heading west. There - it's better to be closer to Poland and the EU than to Russia.

CHANG: That is NPR's Eleanor Beardsley speaking to us from outside the town of Mankivka, Ukraine. That's about 125 miles south of Kyiv. Thank you, Eleanor.

BEARDSLEY: Thank you, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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