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U.S. defense secretary 'wants to see Russia weakened' as Ukraine's railways are hit

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

After visiting Kyiv, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said the U.S. wants to see the Russian military weakened on the battlefield. Meanwhile, Russian missiles struck railway infrastructure in central and western Ukraine this morning. For more, we turn to NPR's Frank Langfitt, who is in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv. Hey, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hey, Rob.

SCHMITZ: How significant are Austin's comments from today?

LANGFITT: You know, Rob, he's kind of confirming what's been evident for many, many weeks. The U.S. and NATO allies, of course, have been pouring billions of dollars in weapons into Ukraine to help the Ukrainians and also to damage the Russian military, to limit its future capabilities. Austin was very direct today. He said, we want to see Russia weakened to the degree it cannot do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine. And, for instance, as the battle conditions, of course, have changed here, the U.S. and other NATO allies have begun to send heavier weapons, such as howitzers. Over the weekend, of course, the Russians again warned the U.S. to stop arming the Ukrainians.

SCHMITZ: And what more do we know about the airstrikes today?

LANGFITT: Well, there was a strike on some rail infrastructure in Vinnytsia. It's in central Ukraine, of course. It killed at least five people, injured 18, and another missile struck a rail power substation about 40 miles from here.

SCHMITZ: And, Frank, you were in Lviv at the beginning of the war. How much has it changed?

LANGFITT: You know, Rob, it feels really different than when I was last back here, and it kind of reflects how the war has gone. For one thing, the U.S. diplomats are actually going to be taking day trips to Lviv from Poland, eventually reopening the embassy in Kyiv. But to give you a sense of what it's like right now, this is how I spent yesterday.

I'm in front of the opera house in the heart of Lviv, and it's a beautiful building - columns and these three giant, bronze angels on top. And when I was here in early March, the beginning of the war, there was almost nobody in this square. And all the restaurants on the side, they were empty, closed. It was 48 hours to get across the border into Poland. Today it's Orthodox Easter Sunday. There are thousands of people out. There are some people here on an electric scooter, a guitarist standing with a Ukrainian flag.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing) We will, we will rock you.

(APPLAUSE)

LANGFITT: And here there are families just jumping inside horse-drawn carriages for a little ride around the cobblestone streets here.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORSE HOOVES CLOPPING)

LANGFITT: For the most part, you can't really tell that Lviv is in a country at war, except right here around city hall. There are these fountains with statues of Neptune and Adonis, and now they've been covered with...

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)

LANGFITT: ...Corrugated aluminum. But in the last two months, the city's proved resilient and adaptable. Hlib Vyshlinsky came here from Kyiv right after the start of the invasion. He runs the Centre for Economic Strategy, a think tank. Hlib says, back then, Lviv was completely different.

HLIB VYSHLINSKY: It was a problem to find a place to have a lunch, to drink coffee because everything was closed. Like, everybody was so scared and just sort of frozen, I could say.

LANGFITT: After Russian troops failed to surround the capital - it's about several hundred miles to the east - the mayor here, he moved to revive the economy and create a kind of new normal. Hlib says the mayor's message was clear.

VYSHLINSKY: If you have a job, if you have a demand for a product or service you're supplying, please go back to work. Like, we do not need everybody volunteering forever.

LANGFITT: And it was basic economics with this twist.

VYSHLINSKY: Serve your customers, pay taxes and Ukrainian economy to support the army in the war time.

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL GROUP: (Singing in non-English language).

LANGFITT: On Sunday, people here found solace and stability in ritual. The city's massive Church of the Holy Eucharist held Easter services. Easter celebrates the resurrection. The atmosphere was solemn and the war ever-present. The priest crafted special prayers for this moment.

UNIDENTIFIED PRIEST: (Through interpreter) The one who brings death is doomed to defeat.

LANGFITT: Some congregants dressed up, including Daria Kokhan, who works in a lab and wore a white scarf and carefully coiffed blond hair. When I asked her about the war, though, her facade cracked.

DARIA KOKHAN: (Through interpreter) The service was special to me because we want peace more than anything so innocent people do not die, innocent people, innocent kids. And I want this to be over as soon as possible.

LANGFITT: The war especially resonates with Daria. Her grandmother fought in the resistance against the Nazis and was sent to a concentration camp. Irina Gromozda, a filmmaker, stood outside the church with her dachshund. She says people here have adapted to the daily air raid sirens. Going into the shelters is now pretty routine. In fact, to be honest, many ignore the warnings these days and continue to roam the streets, playing the odds. Just a week ago, a missile strike killed seven people here.

IRINA GROSMOLDA: (Non-English language spoken).

LANGFITT: So Rob, Irina says here, "I agree with President Zelenskyy. Ukraine will have to become a second Israel and learn how to deal with the constant risk of attack." Gromozda says anyone who wants to stay here will just have to get used to it.

SCHMITZ: NPR's Frank Langfitt, thanks so much.

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

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