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Russian military blasts are felt in the Ukrainian strategic port city of Odesa

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Russia has invaded Ukraine. Ukraine's president says Ukrainian troops are currently fighting Russian forces that are trying to capture the former nuclear power plant in Chernobyl. Russia tanks have also rolled into the country from Belarus. And in many cities across Ukraine, residents woke to the sounds of shelling and air raid sirens. Missile strikes were reported in the capital city of Kyiv, as well as in other cities near the Russian border and in the southern port city of Odesa. That is where NPR's Frank Langfitt has been reporting for the last couple of days.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Walk us through what happened this morning in Odesa.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Yeah. I mean, just after President Putin declared war - about 5 o'clock local time - and 10 minutes later, we started (inaudible) explosions, which shook the hotel. These were clearly missile strikes. And it's no surprise because Odesa - it's a strategic port. There's a naval base in Odesa, and this is what it sounded like.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

LANGFITT: And then jets were roaring overhead. You can hear those.

(SOUNDBITE OF JETS FLYING)

LANGFITT: And then, Rachel, just more missile strikes. Now, most people in the hotel where I was staying - some of them actually slept through this, remarkably. But there's a father I ran into in the hallways. His name is Constantine (ph). He's a lawyer. He was trying to get his family out. And this is what he said as we stood, before dawn, and he was there packing his vehicle.

CONSTANTINE: I am scared.

LANGFITT: Yeah.

CONSTANTINE: I am very scared. I am scared for my baby. And the people don't know what do.

LANGFITT: And so, as he was saying there, people don't know what to do. He headed up north, as did we, out of the city because of the airstrikes. And he's going to be driving hundreds of miles today, west to the city of Lviv, which is near the Polish border, and then be able to settle in there, a place much safer.

MARTIN: What do we know about the damage so far?

LANGFITT: I think it's considerable. But I think what's really striking is the Russian military has come in from three different directions. It is pushing into the Kyiv region, according to the Ukrainian Interior Ministry. So it's rolling along, apparently. In the Odesa region, there's a strike on a military base. They killed 18 people, according to the regional (inaudible) there. And there were also additional missile strikes in other strategic ports - Mykolaiv and Kherson - both of them in the Black Sea area.

MARTIN: I mean, Ukrainians have been living under the threat of this for so long now. Even so, it must be a shock.

LANGFITT: I think it was. I mean, it was really striking last night in Odesa, as I was - it was lovely, quiet night, and I went out to dinner and wanted to stroll around, but I was tired and headed back. But it was just a normal night in Odesa, and it is like flipping a switch when this happens. And so a lot of people didn't think it would, even though there have been lots of threats. And so as we made our way north, we just saw more and more people driving north - long lines at gas stations. I was in a gas station trying to get some food and ran into a guy named Sergey (ph), who had jumped on his motorcycle and headed north to try to find a place for him to live and his parents. And this is what he said.

SERGEY: So I left my parents behind, but they will be coming after me when - you know, when I settle everything down, when we know where to go.

MARTIN: And you can imagine all different versions of him - you know, people trying to leave. So, Frank...

LANGFITT: Tens of thousands.

MARTIN: Tens of thousands.

LANGFITT: Yeah.

MARTIN: You spent a lot of time in the capital city. What is the sense in political and intelligence circles about Putin's ultimate objective here?

LANGFITT: Well, I think that, you know, Putin has said Russia doesn't want to occupy Ukraine. Of course, he also said for months he didn't want to invade. Either way, it is a huge country - 41 million people. The widespread thought is what he really wants to do here is change the regime or change the politics of the regime, even if it could involve killing political leaders. And the reason is, Ukraine shares this huge border with Russia. Ukraine has been drifting west towards NATO and the European Union for many years. And people think Putin really wants to stop this and use his army to redraw the geopolitical map of Europe, that after the collapse of the Soviet Union was very (inaudible) to Russia. And many of these countries, Ukraine among them, have tilted away from Russia and towards democratic countries in Europe and, of course, ultimately, the U.S.

MARTIN: NPR's Frank Langfitt reporting from Ukraine near the port city of Odesa. Frank, thank you.

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

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.