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Ukraine has been preparing to face Russia's expected offensive. Is it ready?


The United Nations says 5 million Ukrainians have now fled the war into other countries, creating a massive and rapidly developing refugee crisis. This comes on a day when Russian artillery and missiles battered Ukrainian defensive lines and cities in the east and south.

NPR's Brian Mann joins us now from Odesa, Ukraine. Hi, Brian.


ESTRIN: So 5 million refugees - where are they going?

MANN: The U.N. Refugee Agency says a lot of these folks are going into neighboring countries in Eastern Europe. That means Poland and Romania. Some are fleeing as far away as France and Britain and, of course, some coming to the U.S. and Canada. According to the U.N., more than 7 million people are also displaced within Ukraine. And they issued a warning - the United Nations did - saying these people, many of them women and children, are incredibly vulnerable right now to human trafficking and sex trafficking.

ESTRIN: Wow. So let's turn to Mariupol. This is the city where Ukrainian fighters and a lot of civilians are still surrounded by Russian forces. And Russia escalated its attacks there today. Give us an update.

MANN: Yeah, the Ukrainians there refused to surrender. In social media posts and interviews, they described truly horrific conditions - injured soldiers, civilians with little medical care, few supplies. There are as many as 100,000 civilians still living in Mariupol, and there was another effort to evacuate some of them today in buses. It appears some people did get out, but Ukrainian officials say, once again, the humanitarian corridor did not work.

ESTRIN: Wow. Now, U.S. officials are saying these intense strikes are actually a build-up to a more massive offensive by Russia. So is Ukraine prepared?

MANN: Yeah, this is the big question right now. Ukrainian officials are putting a very bold face on it. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy acknowledged in his latest address this situation is really dangerous. Russia has one of the strongest militaries in the world. But then Zelenskyy said this.



MANN: Zelenskyy says, "the way our armed forces are holding up shows the Ukrainian army deserved to be ranked higher than the Russian army."

And we hear this kind of optimism everywhere in Ukraine. A spokesman for the military governor here in Odesa, who asked to be identified only by his first name, Eugene, told NPR that Ukraine might actually go on the offensive in the coming days.

EUGENE: The thing is it's all up to the Ukrainian armed forces now to recapture as many ground as we can. And the best solution would be able to recapture everything is to stop this second offensive.

MANN: But when I asked Eugene for details - how the Ukrainian army has prepared itself to do that kind of fighting - here's how the exchange went.

A lot of weapons are coming into Ukraine. Are they reaching here? Are they getting out to the front lines? Is that working?

EUGENE: Well, I can't tell that.

MANN: I can't tell you that, he said. And the truth is Ukrainian officials have been really secretive about their military situation. Experts I spoke to say it's hard to know exactly how prepared they really are.

BILL ROGGIO: Ukrainians have been very tight-lipped.

MANN: That's Bill Roggio. He's a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. He says it's understandable Ukraine's army is keeping its frontline situation secret as long as possible.

ROGGIO: It's a smart ploy by them. It's - you know, you don't want to disclose your weaknesses and losses while you're in the heat of battle, particularly when you're fighting against an enemy that has numerical and military and hardware superiority.

MANN: Ukraine's optimism is based on some major victories - defending the capital, Kyiv, and pushing Russia back. That accomplishment boosted morale, especially for men like Oleksandr Slavsky. He's an employee I met in Odesa's public works department who's now volunteering for the Territorial Defense Force.

OLEKSANDR SLAVSKY: (Speaking Ukrainian).

MANN: "Yes, I have my weapon and my uniform," he says. "I trained at the barracks. I know there are a hundred thousand like me across Ukraine."

That kind of spirit means a lot in war. And a U.S. military official told NPR today many of these territorial defense fighters have had significant training and are ready to fight. Jim Dubik agrees. He's a senior fellow at the Institute for the Study of War.

JIM DUBIK: At the tactical level where the fighting will be, I think that they will be relatively proficient.

MANN: Dubik led the U.S. Army's effort to train Iraq's defense forces during the surge. He says his biggest concern now is whether Ukraine's army has enough logistical support and equipment.

DUBIK: If there is one weak point, it's the Ukraine's ability to replace their battle losses and damaged and destroyed equipment. That completely depends upon the allies.

MANN: Now, Daniel, the experts I spoke to say Ukraine has been hardening its defensive positions in the east around the Donbas region actually for years. So none of them think Russia will break through easily, but this offensive is likely to be a much harder test for Ukraine's army.

ESTRIN: Brian, it sounds like during this next phase of the war, a lot depends on weapons and equipment from the West. Has Ukraine gotten the help that it needs?

MANN: No. This is still a constant complaint from President Zelenskyy and other officials here. They say Ukraine's allies aren't providing the heavy gear, tanks, armored personnel carriers and airplanes that could really shift this war. A senior U.S. defense official did say today that multiple flights are now bringing howitzers and heavy artillery toward Ukraine. Those will arrive in the next few days. Training is underway to get Ukrainian soldiers ready to use them. Not clear how long before they can be deployed.

ESTRIN: NPR's Brian Mann in Odesa. Thanks for your reporting, Brian.

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

Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.

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