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Russia says it retaliated against Ukraine in response to an attack on a key bridge

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

From Kharkiv in the east to Lviv in the west, Russian missiles have hit more than a dozen cities in Ukraine today. Deaths are being reported throughout the country. It's the most aggressive barrage of airstrikes against Ukraine since the early days of Russia's invasion. Russian President Vladimir Putin says the aerial assault is a response to an attack over the weekend on a key bridge linking Russia to occupied Crimea. Explosions also rocked the capital, Kyiv, for the first time since June and right in the center of the city. Well, NPR's Jason Beaubien and Kat Lonsdorf are in Kyiv, and they both join us now. Hey, you two.

KAT LONSDORF, BYLINE: Hi there.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Hey. It's good to be with you.

KELLY: Jason, I'm going to let you kick us off. Just give us a sense of the extent of these strikes by Russia on Ukraine today.

BEAUBIEN: Yeah, I mean, we still don't know the exact number of missiles that were launched against Ukraine. It's still being tallied, and there are still more that have been coming in. But officials here at one point said they counted more than 70 and had successfully shot down roughly half of them. The ones that did get through the air defense systems - they targeted just about every major city, as you mentioned, from Lviv out in the west to cities in the middle of the country, Dnipro, Kharkiv in the east areas in the north up near the border with Belarus and, very significantly, right here in the capital. Some of these were missile strikes. Some were drone attacks. There's a lot of damage and a lot of casualties.

KELLY: Kat, jump in because I know you have spent a lot of today on the road. You woke up this morning in another city, in Dnipro. What did you see there?

LONSDORF: Yeah, well, like much of the country, we were woken up by a series of loud explosions near the city center. And when it was safe, we drove over to one of the places that was hit. It was a bus stop in the middle of a residential area surrounded by high-rise apartment buildings. And a missile that hit right in front of a bus on its route in the morning rush hour. The bus was destroyed, and people were standing around kind of in shock. Nearly all the windows were blown out. There was glass everywhere. It smelled of sewage because lots of manhole covers had been blown off. And one older man was leaning out of what had been the windows on his balcony. He was 81-year-old old Viktor Shevchenko. And he said that he had been watering his plants on his balcony just a few minutes before the blast, and he went inside to cook breakfast.

VIKTOR SHEVCHENKO: (Speaking Ukrainian).

LONSDORF: He said the explosion nearly knocked him over. And I'll say one more thing. You know, there was this feeling today that not just in Dnipro - but I was hearing it from Ukrainians all over the place - that people felt like this was the first days of the war when everyone was shaken, trying to figure out what's going on, where was being hit. And, you know, for better or for worse, Ukraine had kind of fallen into a pattern of predictability in terms of these strikes. And this morning really upended that.

KELLY: Totally upended that, it sounds like. Jason, what has been the response been by Ukraine?

BEAUBIEN: So the first response from President Zelenskyy here has been to just encourage people to stay safe, get to shelters, try to limit the amount of casualties, to limit it as much as possible. He said that, Russia is trying to destroy us and wipe us off the face of the earth.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY: (Speaking Ukrainian).

BEAUBIEN: In a video, Zelenskyy said Moscow's goal appeared to be to strike energy infrastructure, like power plants and things like that. The president, however, added that he saw the second target of Russia as being people. The strikes started, as Kat mentioned, around 8 a.m. local time when many people were out on the streets. They were on their way to work. They were starting their day. And that was the case for a woman we met next to a high-rise office tower that was struck. A colleague of hers is now hospitalized after getting hit with shrapnel. And she said she's just exhausted by this war.

KELLY: Kat, bring us up to speed on a little bit more of what Vladimir Putin is saying. I mentioned he said this was in retaliation for the Crimea bridge attack. What else are we hearing out of Moscow?

LONSDORF: Yeah, I mean, in a video to his Security Council, Putin called this a, quote, "massive, high-precision strike on infrastructure, military command and communications" in Ukraine. You know, like Jason said, we should point out that it was civilians that really seemed to be another major target here. He also said that this was in response to what he considers to be Ukrainian attacks on Russian soil. That would be Ukraine trying to reclaim its own land that Russia has illegally annexed in these sham referendums. He warned that there would be a continued, quote, "tough and proportional response" if Ukraine continues its counter-offensive, essentially. He said this is a taste of the Kyiv regime's own medicine, even though Ukrainian attacks on Russian territory have been pretty rare. You know, to be clear, Kyiv still hasn't claimed to be responsible for the attack on the Crimea bridge, for example.

KELLY: Jason, pick up on that point Kat just made, that the targets today appeared to be civilian. Did any of these incoming rockets today, as far as you could tell, hit military targets?

BEAUBIEN: You know, as far as we can tell, no. These were attacks on cities. It's possible that there was some military infrastructure in there somewhere. But it looked to us like mainly it was cities that were getting hit, civilian infrastructure. It's not the troops on the front lines that have recently been pushing back Russian forces in the east and the south.

KELLY: Which I suppose prompts the question of whether these strikes, as awful as I'm sure they were to experience, will actually degrade Ukraine's ability to fight. Kat, last word to you. Bring us up to speed on what the international response has been to this escalation.

LONSDORF: Yeah. So the U.S. secretary of State, Antony Blinken, tweeted that, you know, the U.S. will continue to provide unwavering support to Ukraine. And several European leaders, while condemning the violence, vowed more military equipment for Ukraine. But I think maybe most notably, it was that Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said that he was ordering his troops to deploy with Russian forces near the northern border of Ukraine. And what he said was to defend a clear threat to Belarus from Kyiv and its Western allies. You know, he didn't give any evidence for those remarks, but he is an ally of Putin's. And it does raise fears that the conflict could intensify even more. And, you know, meanwhile, I think just a lot of people across Ukraine aren't expecting to sleep much tonight.

KELLY: NPR's Kat Lonsdorf and Jason Beaubien, both reporting tonight from Kyiv. Thank you.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome.

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

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.