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The rift appears to widen between Ukraine's president and his top generals

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now to Ukraine, where the top military commander says efforts to retake land occupied by Russian forces have reached a stalemate. That has angered Ukraine's president, who's been sending messages of hope and victory to exhausted Ukrainians. The clash comes at a challenging time for Ukraine, as its allies are distracted by the war in the Middle East. NPR's Joanna Kakissis is in Kyiv, and she's with us now to tell us more about this. Good morning, Joanna.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Good morning, Michel.

MARTIN: So let's start with this rift between Ukraine's president and its top military commander. What set this off?

KAKISSIS: Yeah. So, Michel, the rift is not exactly new, and the tension has to do in part with how the two men communicate messaging about this war. The commander in chief of Ukraine's armed forces, his name is Valery Zaluzhny. He is widely considered a talented military strategist, and he is also a realist. A counteroffensive launched this June to take back occupied land has had limited progress. And a few days ago, General Zaluzhny published an essay in The Economist magazine saying, look, we cannot move quickly on retaking our occupied land without advanced weapons. He says Ukraine needs state-of-the-art drones and electronic warfare to achieve air superiority, and that's what he says will break the stalemate on the battlefield.

Meanwhile, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, he's trying to spin this narrative of hope and strength, and not just to exhausted Ukrainians, but also to Ukraine's allies. One of Zelenskyy's advisers told reporters that, you know, General Zaluzhny's remarks that this war is deadlocked could hurt Ukraine and help Russia.

MARTIN: How do you think this is playing out among Ukrainians? Do you have a sense of what they think needs to happen for this war to end?

KAKISSIS: Yeah, well, Michel, what's been really obvious to me in the few months I've been crisscrossing this country, in my reporting, I found that Ukrainians are very tired and they're very anxious. You know, they've been at war for 621 days. They understand that Ukraine is losing its best soldiers, and they worry Western support won't last. There's just been - there was this recent survey by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, and it showed that trust in the government has actually fallen dramatically as the counteroffensive has slowed. And Ukrainians tell me that, you know, the stress of this long, protracted war, you know, it's just starting to wear them out.

I was just in the southern city of Kherson, which is attacked nearly every day by Russian forces, and I met Liudmyla Verskun (ph). She's in her 70s, and she was here when the city was occupied for months by Russian forces. She's moved her bed to this corner of her apartment. It doesn't have any windows. And she's hiding under blankets during attacks.

LIUDMYLA VERSKUN: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: She's saying, I'm not sure what was scarier, living under occupation or under this constant shelling. But like most Ukrainians, she also does not want to trade any Ukrainian territory for a peace deal with Russia, neither do General Zaluzhny or President Zelenskyy. This weekend, when the European Commission's president was in Kyiv, Zelenskyy made that very clear.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: He said, for us to sit down with Russia and give it something, that will not happen.

MARTIN: Joanna, before we let you go - Ukraine is continuing to fight this counteroffensive. What's the latest on that?

KAKISSIS: So, you know, the front line in the south, it's stalled right now. It's heavily land-mined, and so the Ukrainians are struggling to advance. And Ukraine is battling strong Russian offensives in the east. The Russians are hammering the town of Avdiivka in the Donetsk region in an effort to conquer it. The Russians are also trying to recapture the Kupiansk area in the northeast, which the Ukrainians liberated last year. But Ukrainian forces have made some strategic strikes on Russian military targets in Crimea, the peninsula that Russia illegally annexed in 2014. Just this weekend, they hit a Russian shipyard with long-distance missiles. The Ukrainians want to show that with the right weapons, this war does not have to end in a stalemate.

MARTIN: That's NPR's Joanna Kakissis in Kyiv. Joanna, thank you.

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

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
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.