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Civilians in southern Ukraine are trying to get away from the assault in Mykolaiv

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

President Biden says we will speak softly and carry a large javelin. He's playing off a line by Theodore Roosevelt, speak softly and carry a big stick. Biden made that remark while discussing $800 million in weapons shipments to Ukraine, including Javelin anti-tank missiles. Some of the weapons may arrive this weekend as Ukrainians await a further Russian offensive. We've been watching for that assault in the eastern part of the country, but we also have some news this morning - indications of a Russian advance in the south near Russian-occupied Crimea.

One of our correspondents has been watching civilians get out of the way of that apparent assault. NPR's Brian Mann is in Mykolaiv in southern Ukraine.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Things are tense today. We spoke to several military sources here this morning who say Russian ground troops are now active about 15 miles from the city. When we arrived, we found a fleet of city buses lined up in the center of Mykolaiv, surrounded by crowds of people with suitcases and garbage bags full of clothes, many of them carrying children and pushing strollers.

IRYNA MATVIYISHYN: They're evacuating children and women and elderly people.

MANN: That's Iryna Matviyishyn, a Ukrainian journalist and translator who's working with me here, Steve, for NPR. And together, we spoke with a woman named Ina who was leaving her home in Mykolaiv with her teenage daughter, Polina. They were carrying their little dog. Like a lot of people here, Ina said she's afraid Mykolaiv could turn into another Mariupol, a war zone crowded with civilians.

INA: (Non-English language spoken).

MANN: "I have a small kid, and to save her life, I have to leave to go to Odesa," she told us. So while these people flee, the battle for Mykolaiv is considered to be crucial here in the south. If this city does fall, Russians would be positioned to threaten Odesa, which is, of course, Ukraine's major port on the Black Sea. And that's also a place where a lot of refugees are now staying.

INSKEEP: Brian, I'm interested to hear you say people don't want to be trapped in the city where you are because they don't want it to be like another Mariupol with a lot of civilians in the crossfire. We have evidence - or we're hearing stories of mass graves in Mariupol. What is the evidence?

MANN: Yeah, there are new satellite images that appear to show mass graves on the outskirts of that city. NPR hasn't been able to independently confirm exactly what's happened there, but again, it's clearly troubling. And meanwhile, we have Vladimir Putin publicly calling off the assault on the remaining Ukrainian fighters. But I have to say, there are reports that heavy shelling of those positions does continue.

INSKEEP: Yeah, Russia has not said it will stop the offensive in Mariupol, just that they're not going to go in directly into that steel plant where Ukrainians are holding out. What are Ukrainians saying about this new supply of weapons from the United States?

MANN: You know, over and over, I hear gratitude from soldiers for Western aid, but also an appeal for more. Some of the Ukrainian soldiers I talked to here today say they still lack basic supplies - you know, ammunition and other essentials. And top Ukrainian officials say what they really need are those heavier weapons, like the artillery that's on its way. They also want tanks and aircraft.

INSKEEP: Which is something that the United States would conceivably have. Is this enough to make a difference, though?

MANN: You know, so far, Ukrainians have held the line as Russian bombardments and airstrikes and probes have escalated on the ground. Military officials in Ukraine and defense experts I've been speaking to say if Ukraine can quickly build up their firepower, it could make a difference as this Russian offensive escalates.

INSKEEP: NPR's Brian Mann, thanks so much.

MANN: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.