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Russia continues to advance on Kyiv in attempt to topple Ukrainian government

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

As Russian forces continue to try to fight their way into Kyiv, a Ukrainian delegation plans to meet for peace talks with the Russians. That's according to the Ukrainian president's office. And for more on that meeting and the ongoing violence in Ukraine, we have NPR's Frank Langfitt. He's in the Ukrainian city of Lviv. Frank, thanks for joining us.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hi, Sarah.

MCCAMMON: Can you tell us more about this meeting and how it is expected to work?

LANGFITT: Yeah. So the delegations plan to meet without preconditions near the Pripyat River. This is near the border of Ukraine and Belarus. This is coming from the Ukrainian president's office. The Russians are saying that it's going to be in the Belarusian town of Gomel. It's about 175 miles north of Kyiv. And the Belarusian president - his name is Alexander Lukashenko - he's pledged, apparently, that all planes, helicopters and missiles stationed in Belarus are going to remain on the ground while the Ukrainian delegation is traveling up and back. And that, again, is coming from the Ukrainian president's office. President Zelenskyy here in Ukraine said he's not really that optimistic of a positive outcome of these negotiations. But he said, you know, let them try so that no citizen of the Ukraine doubts that, you know, he basically tried to stop this war even if there was just a small chance of doing so. He said that not long ago in a video address.

MCCAMMON: And, Frank, what is the current military situation on the ground there in Ukraine?

LANGFITT: Yeah. I mean, Sarah, it's the fourth day of war and the Russians are making progress, but they failed to take the capital. And I think the resistance is stiffer than probably they expected and others who've been observing this. We've seen video, you know, on social media of destroyed Russian tanks, captured Russian soldiers, even a Russian tank running out of fuel on the road. That said, the Russians still have a lot of other forces to deploy, and we are expecting, perhaps today, the Russians trying to take an airport northwest of Kyiv and then move in airborne and mechanized airborne forces maybe see Russian armored forces moving south from Chernobyl towards Kyiv or head north from the southern port city of Odesa. That's where I was when the airstrikes began on Thursday morning. And from Odesa, it's pretty much, Sarah, a straight shot, about six-hour drive up the highway to the capital.

MCCAMMON: And beyond the conventional military approach, the tanks and the missiles and so forth, what else is Russia doing, Frank?

LANGFITT: Yeah, this is really interesting. And I think, you know, it's good for people to focus on this. You know, the Russian strategy so far is not to destroy Kyiv, but to topple the government. And the government is concerned across the country about Russian saboteurs. Now, some saboteurs are believed to have been in Kyiv as sleeper cells since December. Some have been air dropped in. And the job is to attack civilian infrastructure. This is what President Zelenskyy said this morning on an address.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY: (Speaking Ukrainian).

LANGFITT: So he says, Sarah, they were lying when they said they wouldn't attack civilians. But starting from the first hours of the invasion, they're attacking civilian infrastructure. Their tactic is to attack people and all things that help make life normal - electric stations, kindergartens, hospitals, residential buildings - all of it's being attacked daily. Now, I talked to Alexander Khara - he's a former Ukrainian diplomat who works with the Centre for Defence Strategies. It's a Kyiv think tank. And he says Russian special forces blew up a fuel depot last night on the outskirts of Kyiv, as well as a gas line into the city. He said he could see flames on the horizon for more than 10 minutes. And he said special forces are really here to perform assassinations to destabilize the government.

ALEXANDER KHARA: Certainly, they would love to do this with the political and military leadership, with the aim to replace them with the puppet guys like they've done in Crimea and then in Donetsk, Lugansk. I just - we're very proud of the president and our military who are staying in the downtown of Kyiv. It's their office. So they did not retreat like the Americans were proposing them to do.

LANGFITT: And Khara's referring here to the way Russia installed political leadership in the Donbas to the east and south in Crimea, which Russia annexed back in 2014 and kind of, most strikingly, Zelenskyy's decision apparently to turn down an American evacuation offer, saying reportedly, I need ammunition. I don't need a ride.

MCCAMMON: Frank, you describe these efforts at sabotage in Kyiv. How is Kyiv trying to fight back?

LANGFITT: Well, right now there's a 24-hour curfew even during the daytime, so everybody's supposed to be off the streets. And I think from the government's perspective, if you're on the streets, the soldiers are allowed to shoot people. And their strategy here is to make it much easier to spot or kill Russian operatives.

MCCAMMON: You've been traveling across the country for the past couple of days. What else are you seeing there in Ukraine?

LANGFITT: A fundamental transformation, Sarah, of this country. Just a few days ago, the roads were completely normal, nothing different than what you'd see in the United States. In the last few days, we've driven hundreds of miles. And we're seeing checkpoints going up as we drive, people piling up sandbags, building concrete pillboxes. I remember at one checkpoint, we saw earthmovers digging trenches for Ukrainian soldiers. And remember, just five days ago, this country was completely at peace, and I didn't see hardly any military presence. Now, right now we're staying at a village. Last night, we passed more than a dozen local men with AK-47s protecting the little village here. And I talked to them this morning at the town hall. And they explained they're looking for Russian special forces who are also moving around and trying to mark targets for missiles and bombers by dropping homing devices near civilian infrastructure.

MCCAMMON: NPR's Frank Langfitt from Lviv. Frank, thanks for your reporting.

LANGFITT: Good to talk, Sarah. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.