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With a trip to Kyiv, NATO foreign ministers underscore their commitment to Ukraine

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

NATO's secretary general is promising extra support for Ukraine.

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JENS STOLTENBERG: We will stand by Ukraine as long as it takes. We'll not back down.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Jens Stoltenberg spoke at a meeting of NATO foreign ministers, including the U.S. secretary of state, Antony Blinken. They met in Romania, which borders Ukraine, as Ukraine faces Russian attacks on civilian infrastructure.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Ashley Westerman joins us from Kyiv. Ashley, what are the foreign ministers focusing on in this meeting in Bucharest?

ASHLEY WESTERMAN, BYLINE: So this meeting is specifically about how NATO can support Ukraine through the winter, which is supposed to be particularly harsh this year, amid a constant barrage of attacks on Ukraine's critical infrastructure by Russian forces. The U.S. announced a new tranche of aid yesterday - $53 million - to help acquire equipment to fix Ukraine's utility grid - things like transformers, circuit breakers, surge arresters, vehicles and other equipment. In a tweet announcing that new money, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Russia's attacks on Ukraine's civilian energy system were, quote, "brutal and have imperiled millions." Also yesterday, NATO pledged to provide more weapons - air defense systems and munitions - to Ukraine but also non-military aid, like fuel and generators.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, it's been a week since Russia just unleashed that attack that Blinken called brutal on infrastructure in Ukraine. What's the situation there right now?

WESTERMAN: Well, A, I can say it's gotten better, but it's still difficult. For example, here at NPR's bureau, we experience hours-long electricity blackouts. We're actually on generator power right now. And these usually knock out our Wi-Fi and sometimes our cell service. But it's not just us, of course. Countrywide, there are still millions without power, too, because of the strikes last week. Earlier this week, officials say about half the homes in Kyiv have had their power restored, and it is getting restored in other parts of the country. But they still have about 30% less power than they actually need. And that's according to the state energy operator Ukrenergo. And, you know, the repairs are going slower than before, as well. Temperatures have been hovering around freezing most of this week, and we've had lots of snow, making it super difficult to fix what's been broken.

MARTÍNEZ: So how are people coping with this?

WESTERMAN: You know, the Ukrainians are toughing it out, really. While, countrywide, energy curbs have been in place, people are also voluntarily rationing electricity. And you can see that just walking through Kyiv - darkened buildings and neighborhoods that clearly do have electricity. And there's also a sense here that rationing energy is not only imperative to their survival, but also patriotic. And in one act of defiance this week, officials here in Kyiv say Christmas trees will go up throughout the city. However, many of those trees won't have lights. Here's Mayor Vitali Klitschko on the decision to go ahead and celebrate the holidays amid the war.

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VITALI KLITSCHKO: (Speaking Ukrainian).

WESTERMAN: He says, "Putin wants to steal everything from us and wants to take the holidays away from children. We can't let that happen."

MARTÍNEZ: I know defiance is one thing, but, I mean, these big attacks on infrastructure, they've become a regular thing - almost weekly. Does that mean people are going to be bracing for the next one?

WESTERMAN: Absolutely. People are super worried. Russia is failing to beat the Ukrainians on the battlefield, so they're hoping to freeze them out by taking down their utility infrastructure. And, A, it's become a bit of a game of whack-a-mole, honestly. You know, the Russians strike, the Ukrainians do what they can as fast as they can to repair the damage, but then the Russians strike again. And another big strike is what I think people are really most worried about right now.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Ashley Westerman in Kyiv, Ukraine. Ashley, thanks.

WESTERMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Ashley Westerman is a producer who occasionally directs the show. Since joining the staff in June 2015, she has produced a variety of stories including a coal mine closing near her hometown, the 2016 Republican National Convention, and the Rohingya refugee crisis in southern Bangladesh. She is also an occasional reporter for Morning Edition, and NPR.org, where she has contributed reports on both domestic and international news.