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Fighting breaks out after Russian troops enter Ukraine's second-largest city

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Tonight, Ukraine's two largest cities are under attack. Russian troops are trying to surround the capital, Kyiv. And in the east, Russian soldiers briefly pushed through to the center of the country's second largest city, Kharkiv, only to be pushed back by defending Ukrainian forces. Russia also blew up a major gas pipeline in Kharkiv. The president's office in Ukraine released a statement saying it was ready to negotiate with Russian officials with no preconditions at a location near the border with Belarus. Meanwhile, thousands of Ukrainians are trying to flee the violence, and the borders with Poland, Romania and Hungary are overwhelmed with people seeking to leave Ukraine.

We're going to go now to NPR's Eleanor Beardsley, who is in Ukraine and has spoken with Ukrainians trapped in Kharkiv. Eleanor, thanks so much for being here.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Well, thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: So tell us what you've heard.

BEARDSLEY: Well, we're talking a lot about Kyiv, but Kharkiv is the other main target of the Russian army. It's Ukraine's second largest city, with 1.5 million people, and it's known as Ukraine's university town. There are 300,000 students there, and I reached one of them, 21-year-old Stas Kapusta, by phone today. Yesterday, he fled the city with his mother, and they're in a village about 60 miles south. He says they can hear the shelling. And he described the day it all started, which was only three days ago. Here's what he told me.

STAS KAPUSTA: It was so horrible when we wake up in the morning and explosions. No one imagines that our neighbor, the Russian Federation, will go declare a war on us to kill civil people. It is just terrible.

MARTIN: You know what? You know, Eleanor, you were there just a month ago. Tell us a little bit more about the town, if you would. Were people preparing for an invasion then?

BEARDSLEY: Michel, absolutely not. As I said, there were so many students and young people and a lot of foreign students. Since the Soviet times, students have come to study there from Africa and India, studying medicine and agriculture. No one I talked to was worried about Putin invading. An Indian student even laughed at the question. So it was a city with a young vibe. It was clearly a city open to the world. And I met Stas Kapusta, who you just heard from, when I was there. I also met Tetyana Smytska. We sat down in one of Kharkiv's trendy cafes to have coffee.

TETYANA SMYTSKA: My name is Tetyana, and I've been working as a teacher of English for more than 20 years at the University of Radio Electronics here.

BEARDSLEY: So she talked to me about how this eastern city, which has traditionally identified culturally with Russia more than western Ukraine, how it has become a real Ukrainian city since 2014. And 2014 is when Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea and started the separatist wars in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. So Smytska told me that eight grinding years of war and the thousands of people who fled those regions to Kharkiv convinced people in the city that their future lies with Ukraine and not Russia. She said in 2014, the Russians tried to sweep Kharkiv up in that separatist movement. Here's what she told me.

SMYTSKA: It started in Donetsk, and then they wanted all the eastern part of the Ukrainians to be involved in this - some kind of revolution for - or they called it Russian Spring, Russian Spring.

BEARDSLEY: She said people came from Russia. They handed out leaflets and briefly hoisted a Russian flag over city hall. And she says their accents gave them away, but the mayor quickly took the flag down and put an end to it. And she said people were always glad about that, but she clearly thought that that was the end of it.

MARTIN: Have you been able to speak to her since the fighting began? How's she doing?

BEARDSLEY: Yes, I have spoken with her. I spoke with her yesterday. She's shaken. She's been living these last three days in an underground bunker under a school with her daughter and other people. I'll just let you listen to Tetyana. She clearly blames Putin.

SMYTSKA: I think it's just madness. Nobody expected such ways to - for this conflict, frankly. And for me, it was just a shock. He is ill. He is ill, and everybody should do something to finish this craziness. And maybe next time when you go to the city center, you will never have the same life.

BEARDSLEY: So I actually called her today, Michel, and she didn't pick up. And she later texted me and said she couldn't talk because she's trying to conserve her cellphone battery.

MARTIN: So, Eleanor, where are you now, and what's happening there?

BEARDSLEY: I'm outside the western city of Lviv, and I have - I was in Kharkiv, actually, when the invasion began. And I have made my way across Ukraine these last few days, and I have just seen, you know, a panicked nation. The highways are blocked, lines at gas stations, but people are also angry and defiant. They're signing up for the army, and there are checkpoints everywhere. And it's just a nation in panic, angry and sad.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Eleanor Beardsley speaking to us from western Ukraine. Eleanor, thank you so much.

BEARDSLEY: Michel, great to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.