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Russia will let inspectors enter occupied Ukrainian nuclear power plant, Putin says

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

President Vladimir Putin says Russia will allow international inspectors to enter a Ukrainian nuclear power plant that Russian forces have occupied for months now. The decision comes after nearly two weeks of shelling around the plant, which the U.N. had warned could lead to a nuclear disaster. For more, we turn now to NPR's Frank Langfitt in Kyiv. Hi, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hi, Juana.

SUMMERS: Frank, this seems like a significant development. What can you tell us?

LANGFITT: Yeah, I think it is. I mean, this came in a call between President Putin and French President Emmanuel Macron. The Kremlin said that Putin has been blaming Ukraine for shelling Russian forces that are inside the plant, but did finally say that he'd allow inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency to come inside the facility. Now, Russia still isn't going to withdraw its forces from the plant or demilitarize the area, as the U.N. has been asking. I haven't seen a timeline on exactly when the inspectors would arrive, and you've got to remember, this is a war zone. But it is progress, I think, after a dangerous two weeks that had a lot of people here in Ukraine and elsewhere in Europe really worried about what was happening there.

SUMMERS: Remind us, if you can - where is this plant, and just how high are the stakes here?

LANGFITT: Yeah. It's in the Zaporizhzhia region. This is in southern Ukraine. The Russians seized it back in March. And the Ukrainians say Russian forces were basically using it as a nuclear shield from which they could fire on Ukrainian troops. And the fear all along has been that there could be an artillery strike that could cause either a radiation leak or even a meltdown. That could force millions of people to flee or seek shelter underground. So people - I think around the country - had been very nervous.

SUMMERS: The fighting around this plant is part of a much bigger battle in the south of Ukraine, and that has become the focus of this war in recent weeks. How is the fighting playing out there?

LANGFITT: Yeah, it's really interesting. Ukraine launched this counteroffensive, and it's been trying to take back territory bit by bit. And the main goal seems to be this strategic city of Kherson, down in the south. The Russians took it over in the beginning of the war, and there are signs that they want to annex it and make it part of Russia. They've responded to the Ukrainian attacks by sending a lot of their troops out from the east, where there was a lot of fighting, down to Kherson to try to hold the city. When I was down in this region back in May, the Ukrainians were really struggling. They were really frustrated. They didn't have enough long-range artillery.

I've been in touch with people this week. Things have changed a lot. They're very happy to have American long-range howitzers and these HIMARS that we've been talking about a lot - these multiple-launch precision rockets - and the military says they're making a really big difference. And what they're allowing the Ukrainians to do is go deep behind enemy lines with these missiles and take out a lot of Russian ammunition. They've knocked out every bridge in the region as a way of cutting off supply lines to the Russians. And this morning, I was talking to a guy named Oleksiy Arestovych. He's served as an adviser for the Ukrainian president, and this is what he had to say.

OLEKSIY ARESTOVYCH: It's a game-changing weapon. They completely change the situation at the front line - absolutely - and Russians can do nothing with HIMARS.

LANGFITT: And what he's saying there is the Russians are pretty defenseless against these HIMARS. There's not much they can do.

SUMMERS: OK. So the Ukrainians have been getting these HIMARS, those howitzers that you mentioned, and the U.S. just announced today that it will send nearly $800 million worth of additional weapons. Do you have a sense of how that's translating on the battlefield?

LANGFITT: Well, it's interesting. Arestovych said, as recently as June, the Russians - and I think we've been reporting on this - a number of our reporters - that Russians have been basically raining down shells on Ukrainian troops. They've been stuck often in trenches, kind of like sitting ducks. There's not much they can do. These HIMARS have allowed, basically, the Ukrainians to blow up so much ammunition, the Russians now have a lot fewer shells to fire. And so people here, I think, feel that things are beginning to even up between these two armies, where it has not been even for almost the entire war.

There is a problem, though, Juana. There was - I was talking to a military source this week who said that many of the infantry - they only have, like, a month of training. And they don't have, frankly, the psychological fortitude or training to be part of a mass attack. Now, you can't really blame them. I mean, until recently, these were ordinary civilians. You can understand why they'd be reluctant...

SUMMERS: Sure.

LANGFITT: ...To be part of a mass ground attack against what is still one of the largest armies in the world. So the result, I think, here is it's still a very slow process, fighting village by village, mile by mile, while trying to starve the Russians of ammunition.

SUMMERS: Both armies seem to be focusing heavily on Kherson. What's the city's strategic value?

LANGFITT: You know, this was the first major city Russians took during the invasion. I was there, actually, before the invasion - maybe a week or so - and it happened pretty quickly, and they set up an occupying administration. So taking it back, I think, would be a big boost to national morale. It would be a huge deal. Also, there's a strategic value here. You take Kherson - if the Ukrainians could take it, it's a launching pad to attack other Russian cities heading east along the Black Sea coast.

And as we've been reporting now for months, the Black Sea and the Black Sea coast are incredibly important. If you can control those, you can control the Ukrainian economy - the ability to export grain and other agricultural products. And so both sides, now, I think, are pretty much - they have all along, I think, been fighting for the best position that they could get whenever they end up at the negotiating table. And this is how Arestovych put it.

ARESTOVYCH: We have hope, and we have a plan to make for the Russians two or three great defeats on the battlefield. And after that, maybe they will be ready for real negotiations.

LANGFITT: And I think that's a lot of what's going on now - take as much territory as possible, maybe make the enemy think they're losing. That said, even as the conditions have improved for the Ukrainians in the south, this is still a very slow, grinding war, Juana.

SUMMERS: OK. That is NPR's Frank Langfitt in Kyiv. Thank you, Frank.

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

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