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Ukrainians appear to win the battle in Kharkiv. The mood is far from celebratory

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Russia is suffering a major setback in Ukraine as it becomes clear that their forces are retreating from the city of Kharkiv. Since the first days of the war, Russian troops attacked and attempted to encircle Ukraine's second-largest city. But Ukrainian officials, international military observers and NPR's own Jason Beaubien on the ground in Kharkiv say Moscow's forces are now slowly but steadily being pushed away from the city. And Jason is with us now from Kharkiv to tell us more. Jason, welcome back to the program. Thanks so much for joining us.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: No, it's great to be here, Michel.

MARTIN: So what is it that you're seeing there in Kharkiv that makes you say that Russian forces are moving back from the city?

BEAUBIEN: Well, first, you know, top military officials here are saying that this is happening, but we're also hearing it from Ukrainian soldiers when we're out at checkpoints and also just talking to people here. They're saying that the Russian artillery positions are no longer able to pound the neighborhoods on the northern edge of the city like they were before. And just today, we were able to get out into some towns and villages that were occupied by the Russians as recently as just a few weeks ago. So it's very clear that the Ukrainian troops are regaining territory north and east of Kharkiv, and they're pushing the Russian forces back towards the Russian border.

MARTIN: Russia's grabbed a lot of Ukrainian territory in the east of the country as well as the south. How significant is it that Ukraine appears to have won this battle for Kharkiv?

BEAUBIEN: You know, it's very significant. Russia at first attempted to take the capital, Kyiv, which is the largest city in Ukraine. That failed. Now Moscow's attempts to take the second-largest city, Kharkiv, also appears to have failed. And also, just geographically, this moves that last Russian frontline further east, pretty much pushing the Russians out of the north and the heartland of the country.

MARTIN: What are you hearing from the people there? Are - it sounds like a strange question, but are they celebrating?

BEAUBIEN: No, not at all. People here are still very cautious. They're very nervous. The bombardment of the city was incredibly destructive. And this offensive by the Ukrainians, it's been a long, slow slog. There's concern that the battle might turn again. There are some people that are still sleeping in the subway stations here and other bomb shelters every night because they're still not believing that this is true. But out in some of the towns that were occupied by the Russians, people there, they're just elated. They say that our boys have come and liberated their towns. And I have to say, these towns really have been blown to bits. I met this one woman, Pavlenka Victoria (ph), and she was cleaning up her house in a village just east of Kharkiv.

PAVLENKA VICTORIA: (Through interpreter) So you understand, just like in this house, in my house, they've been living for a month. Russians, they've been living for a month.

BEAUBIEN: The Russian occupiers rammed her front gate. She says they drank all of her homemade wine. They shot both her toilet and her television. Victoria and her family, they spent weeks sheltering in the basement of a friend's house during the occupation. There was no electricity, gas or running water, but the Russians still wouldn't allow them to leave.

VICTORIA: (Through interpreter) We've been like hostages here because the moment they invaded, they blocked all the roads that it's possible to escape from the city. I know that people were trying to do it, but I don't have any information if some of them managed to do it. But yeah, we pretty much - we've been like hostages.

BEAUBIEN: She says she knows at least three people in this village who were killed by the Russians during the occupation. Her neighbor told us about a young girl being raped by a soldier. We can't confirm these accounts, but the physical destruction in this village and others, it's very plain to see. And while residents, you know, they still face major challenges to rebuild, they were telling us today that they're incredibly happy to be back now as part of Ukraine.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Jason Beaubien in Kharkiv, Ukraine. Jason, thank you so much for bringing us this reporting.

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