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Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin traveled to Ukraine to pledge long-term U.S. support

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Lloyd Austin, the U.S. Secretary of Defense, made a surprise visit to Ukraine to start the week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LLOYD AUSTIN: The United States stands with Ukraine. And we're going to be with them for the long haul.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Ukraine also had a different visitor this week, snow. And that matters because as temperatures drop, military strategists believe Russia may attack the power grid again. And additional U.S. aid to Ukraine, at least for the moment, is not guaranteed.

INSKEEP: NPR's Nathan Rott is in the Ukrainian capital with a status report. Hey there, Nate.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning.

INSKEEP: I hope you've got your winter weather gear ready to go.

ROTT: Always.

INSKEEP: OK, good. And a good pair of boots. Why was Austin in Kyiv this week, do you think?

ROTT: So Austin says it was to show Ukrainian leadership that the U.S. is still committed to the country, as you heard him say, for the long haul. And that is, you know, certainly meaningful here with winter approaching, people bracing for more power blackouts and fighting slowing on the front lines, or at least expected to do. But I think Austin's audience wasn't just Ukrainian leadership. As you well know, U.S. Congress is still debating whether to approve a new block of funding for Ukraine that the Biden administration has been asking for. And the administration has said that current funding for Ukraine could run out in a couple of months.

INSKEEP: Yeah. When you think about it, I mean, every rocket that the Ukrainians fire, every shell that they fire - that's money. That's often U.S. dollars. So how significant is it for Ukraine that the pipeline for funding - it's not at the end, but you could see an end?

ROTT: Yeah. I mean, look. If the U.S. stops giving military assistance to Ukraine, it would be a very big deal. But we're not there. The European Union is steadfast in its support, so Ukraine is still getting support. You know, supplying Ukrainian soldiers with tanks and missiles and trainings and other aid like air defense winter gear - you know, here in Kyiv, air defense systems have been critical to protecting people and critical infrastructure from Russian missile and drone strikes. Both nights this weekend, Russia launched waves of drones at the capital. And the folks we've been talking to say that they expect those kinds of long-range attacks to really ramp up here as temperatures drop and fighting slows on the front lines.

INSKEEP: Similar to previous winters, I guess.

ROTT: Exactly. I mean, yeah, last winter, Russia made a concerted effort to really make life miserable for as many people as it could here in Ukraine, attacking power plants, heating facilities, electrical infrastructure. We've seen how Ukraine is bracing for that again this winter. You know, they put in sandbags around electrical substations, repairing and restringing power lines. But there's no doubt that this is going to be a really tough winter ahead.

INSKEEP: Nate, I have to note there were analysts and Ukrainians almost euphorically predicting big offensive gains this year, 2023. There was a much-hyped offensive this year. That seems to have dropped off.

ROTT: Yeah, I mean, look. Ukraine, Russia - Neither side has made significant territorial gains over most of the last year. And we were talking to soldiers about that in the Donetsk region - that's far eastern Ukraine - last week asking them how they're doing. They were saying, look. We're really tired. Here's an artilleryman who goes by the call sign Svin (ph). Soldiers don't give their names because of security regulations.

SVIN: I think it's because we are not see the movement.

ROTT: Yeah.

SVIN: Yes. So the movement. And last year, we saw that. We were happy with. So the mood was in a high level. And now it just - we understand what - we will do what the commanders will say. It's not a problem. Yeah. But just tired.

ROTT: And I think that's true for most people in Ukraine, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Nathan Rott in Kyiv, thanks so much.

ROTT: Yeah, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.