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We're trying everything to avoid WWIII, acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine says

Acting United States ambassador to Ukraine Kristina Kvien left Ukraine last month when the invasion began and is now just over the border in Poland.
Yuriy Dyachyshyn
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AFP via Getty Images
Acting United States ambassador to Ukraine Kristina Kvien left Ukraine last month when the invasion began and is now just over the border in Poland.

RZESZOW, POLAND — As Russia continues its invasion of Ukraine, NATO forces are building in border countries in an effort to contain the conflict and prevent a wider war, according to the latest assessment from the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.

"We're trying everything we can to make sure it doesn't lead to World War III," Kristina Kvien told NPR on Monday. "But ultimately ... that depends on the actions of President Putin."

"We have sent extra troops to Poland and other NATO allies that border Ukraine to make sure that they have the security they need. ... If Russia takes one step, one inch into NATO territory, NATO will be prepared to respond."

Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion just under two weeks ago, but Russian forces have made less headway than many military analysts expected. They have been slowed by logistical issues and a galvanized Ukrainian military and civilian fighters who have so far held the line in the capital, Kyiv.

"I think the Russians were surprised," Kvien said. "My understanding of their initial plan was to take Ukraine in 10 days, and they have only taken one significant city."

"The Ukrainians are fighting, they're fighting hard and they're fighting with love of country, and patriotism," she added. "Russians are not fighting hard. Many Russian troops appear demoralized."

Until last month, Kvien was based in Kyiv. Now she is running her operation out of a hotel in the Polish city of Rzeszow, near the border with Ukraine.

Over the weekend, Israel's prime minister tried to mediate talks between the leaders of Russia and Ukraine, and there have been negotiations in Belarus. Ukraine and Russia held a third round of talks on Monday, as Russia has announced a partial cease-fire in some Ukrainian cities.

Ukraine's second-biggest city of Kharkiv has taken massive damage from Russian shelling.
Sergey Bobok / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Ukraine's second-biggest city, Kharkiv, has taken massive damage from Russian shelling.

But even as the Ukrainian military has managed to slow Russia's progress, efforts to establish humanitarian corridors to allow people to flee have so far failed.

"The Russians are saying that they would like to create humanitarian corridors, but then they don't actually let them go forward," Kvien said. "And in fact, some individuals who were trying to use those humanitarian corridors have been shot. So, of course, it means that those who want to leave are now afraid to do so because they don't have trust that the humanitarian corridor will hold."

Meanwhile, on Monday, Ukraine formally asked the U.N.'s International Court of Justice to order Russia to halt its war on Ukraine.

In the weeks before the attack, Kvien said she hoped for a diplomatic solution to the growing tension. Now with an invasion in full swing and no evidence it is easing, Kvien still thinks talks could help.

"The answer hasn't changed. And it really is up to President Putin. He needs to sit down and have a real discussion about this and be willing to have a diplomatic solution and to stop the killing," Kvien said.

She rejected the suggestion that this line of thinking gave Russia all the power in the situation.

"Russia has some of the power here," she said. "The entire Western world has imposed serious sanctions on Russia. And their economy is going down quickly. The sanctions have had a very quick effect, and Russian ruble is plummeting. The Russian stock market is plummeting. Russian goods are becoming more difficult to get. And so Russia is feeling the heat here."

Volunteers from the aid organization "Borderless Warmth" sort relief supplies for Ukraine at the Westfalenhalle in Dortmund, western Germany.
Ina Fassbender / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Volunteers from the aid organization Borderless Warmth sort relief supplies for Ukraine in Dortmund, in western Germany.

More than 1.5 million people have left Ukraine since the invasion began — most coming into Poland — in what the United Nations has called the fastest exodus of refugees since World War II.

"The Poles have been doing a good job," Kvien said. "I would say Europeans all over Europe, not just in Poland, have really stepped up and are helping in many different ways."

"International aid organizations are coming to Poland and other border countries to help. And I think that with the support of the international organizations, they will continue to be able to absorb Ukrainian refugees."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Patrick Wood
Patrick Wood is the digital lead for All Things Considered. Previously, he was a reporter and editor at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.