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Russia is still blocking key Ukrainian port as fighting continues in Ukraine's east

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

To Ukraine now, where we are following developments today in several places. There's intense fighting in the east of the country, new information on a Ukrainian city under Russian occupation and the ongoing Russian blockade of Ukraine's key port.

To sort through all this, we're joined by NPR's Greg Myre. He is in the capital, Kyiv. Hey, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: OK, let's start with the latest on the fighting in eastern Ukraine, in Donbas. What can you tell us?

MYRE: There's one small, battered industrial city that remains the focal point. This is Severodonetsk. It's in the heart of eastern Ukraine. There was more heavy fighting today but no clear advances by either side. There's reports of street fighting. Russia seemed like it was about to capture this city last week. Then Ukraine said it pushed the Russians back.

Now, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made a surprise visit nearby Sunday, perhaps just 10 miles or so from the front, well within Russian artillery range. And he urged Ukrainian forces to hold the line. But he's since given an interview calling Severodonetsk and nearby towns dead cities because they've - they're so utterly destroyed. And if we step back, this battle adds to the evidence of a looming standoff in the larger war - more and more signs the fighting could drag on indefinitely, but neither side appears capable of a knockout blow.

KELLY: Let me turn you to another place that I suppose could also be called a dead city. This is the southern coastal city Mariupol. Russia captured it, and then it was like we just stopped hearing anything at all about it, from it. Do we know what things are like there now?

MYRE: Well, we heard from some city councilmembers today. Now, they've long since left, but they're still in touch with some residents. And they put out a statement, saying thousands of bodies are decomposing in the rubble as summer sets in there. Also, the sewage system is not working, so they say there's a powerful stench throughout the city. The statement said the city is literally drowning in garbage and sewage, and there are fears there could be a cholera outbreak.

Now, Russian state media denies there's a humanitarian crisis there. But since Russian troops took over last month, the city is largely a black hole when it comes to information. And just one more grim note today - the bodies of dozens of Ukrainian fighters who were killed in the Azovstal steel plant there in Mariupol, they're now arriving in Kyiv, according to the government.

KELLY: It sounds just like an absolutely horrific situation there. One more place to ask you about, and that is Odesa. This is Ukraine's biggest port. Russia has been blockading it. What's the latest there?

MYRE: Yeah, Ukraine desperately needs to export its abundant farm products - wheat, corn, cooking oil. But the Russian warships in the Black Sea have blocked Odesa, blocked all traffic since the fighting began. Now, Turkey is the broker here. It has decent relations with both countries, and it controls the entrance and the exit to the Black Sea. We are expecting more talks, likely this week.

KELLY: Meanwhile, Ukraine and Russia would seem to have something in common in Odesa, right, Greg? They're both trying to get exports out of that port and out to the wider world. Is there reason to be hopeful they'll find a way to do that?

MYRE: There's little evidence so far. Over the weekend, a Russian missile destroyed a grain storage terminal in a nearby port city. And at the U.N. Security Council on Monday, the European Council president, Charles Michel, said Russia's war is having a global impact - quote, "it's driving up food prices, pushing people into poverty and destabilizing entire regions. Russia is solely responsible for this food crisis." The Russian ambassador responded by storming out, and that seems to sum up the atmosphere at the moment.

KELLY: Not a lot of good developments. NPR's Greg Myre, thanks for staying on top of all of them.

MYRE: My pleasure.

KELLY: He is reporting from the capital of Ukraine, Kyiv. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.