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Ukraine's counteroffensive is finally underway

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

At this moment in the war, there is a lot at stake for Ukraine. On the battlefield, the push to drive out Russian troops is coming into focus, and in Brussels, 50 Western nations supporting Ukraine just wrapped up a meeting where they discussed additional support. To help us understand where this conflict stands right now, Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is here in the studio, and NPR's Greg Myre is in Ukraine's capital, Kyiv - good to have you both here.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Greg, let's start with you. We've heard for a long time now about Ukraine's plans for a spring offensive. As spring turns to summer, where does this effort stand?

MYRE: Well, Ari, at this point, we're a little bit over a week into it. It's limited progress, very tough going. The Russian troops are dug in, and they're waiting with minefields and trenches and air power. Every village is being contested. The Ukrainians are trying to advance along three separate lines - one to the East, two to the Southeast. They're probably doing best in this sort of middle line. They're working their way down a small river, and they've taken several villages along the way. Overall, the Ukrainian military says they've taken about roughly 40 square miles. So they are moving forward, but it's a slow pace, and they have not approached any of the key towns or cities that they'll need to really make this a success.

SHAPIRO: So, Tom, what are you hearing about the additional support that might be coming to Ukraine from the U.S. and other allies?

BOWMAN: Ari, as you noted, there was a meeting in Brussels, and the U.S. and its allies pledged more air defense weapons. And that's, of course, vital because Russia continues to hammer Ukrainian cities - so more missiles for the Patriot batteries and other air defense systems, also more tanks, armored vehicles, shoulder-fired missiles to hit Russian tanks. And finally, there are plans they announced to train Ukrainian pilots on the F-16 warplane in Denmark and the Netherlands sometime this summer. But no word on when and how many of the aircraft will actually get to Ukraine, and that has annoyed Ukrainian officials and some defense analysts who said, we needed these planes much earlier. Now you're looking at probably sometime next year.

SHAPIRO: This flow of weapons to Ukraine from NATO has been going on for more than a year since the start of the war, so when you talk to defense officials, what sense do you get about the scope of this?

BOWMAN: Well, General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke in Brussels. He mentioned, as Greg just pointed out, that some villages have been taken, but he cautioned this will be a difficult, long and bloody campaign. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARK MILLEY: There are several hundred thousand Russian troops dug in in prepared positions all along the frontline. And Ukraine has begun their attack, and they are making steady progress. This is a very difficult fight. It is a very violent fight, and it will likely take a considerable amount of time and at high cost.

BOWMAN: Now, General Milley, Ari, in the past has said that neither Russia nor Ukraine can achieve its goals. Russia cannot take over Ukraine, and Ukraine won't be able to kick all Russians out. So likely, the best-case scenario for this counteroffensive is to put Ukraine in a better negotiating position by grabbing more land.

SHAPIRO: Tom, when you talk to your sources at the Pentagon, what are they privately concerned about?

BOWMAN: Ari, mines are a real problem. Russia has covered the entire front with minefields. The Ukrainians have anti-mine capabilities, such as rollers that are in front of tanks and armored vehicles that will set off these mines and hopefully not destroy the vehicle, but they are taking a toll, losing a lot of tanks and armor. Another issue is Russian air power. Russia is using more of its aircraft to attack Ukrainian forces in the South from a safe distance, so air defenses at the frontlines will be important, not just in the cities. Russia is also being very successful in the use of electronic warfare to break the connection between the drones and the operator, causing the drones to crash. That's another concern because these drones are used for surveillance of Russian positions and also for attacks.

SHAPIRO: Greg, Ukrainians know all of these challenges firsthand, so how are they dealing with them?

MYRE: Well, yeah, Ari. Speaking of drones, yesterday, the Ukrainians put on this big display on this farmland south of Kyiv to showcase just how good their drones are. I mean, there were drones buzzing everywhere. We felt like we were in the middle of a swarm of bees. Now, this is part of Ukraine's army of drones that they've created, where private groups have trained 10,000 military drone pilots. They learned how to operate these off-the-shelf drones for reconnaissance, and the Ukrainians have added a claw so that they can drop grenades on Russian troops. But as Tom noted, Russia has countered with this electronic jamming that causes the drone operator to lose control. I spoke about this with a guy who trains a lot of the drone pilots, Anton Frolov.

ANTON FROLOV: At the very beginning of this war, the flight distance of the civilian drone was five, seven kilometers - from five to seven. Right now we have only two because of jamming system, because of this system that's getting tougher and tougher against us.

MYRE: And two kilometers is just a little over a mile, and he says you can only keep a drone aloft for a couple minutes now before the Russians find it and knock it out. But he says the Ukrainians are also working on new software that they think can defeat the Russian jamming.

SHAPIRO: We've been talking about the scope of the Ukrainian offensive, but as you know, Russia keeps bombarding Ukrainian cities with missiles and drones. How is Ukraine's air defense coping with that?

MYRE: Well, we got a vivid example this morning. These attacks are usually at night, but Russia fired a dozen missiles at Kyiv today, sending residents scrambling for cover - lots of loud booms over the city. And the streets were very full at this time of day. Now, Ukraine says those booms were its air defense system shooting down all 12 missiles, and this really reflects an air defense system that continues to work very, very well in the capital. But other cities aren't as well-protected, and some missiles and drones do get through. We saw an example this week with a nighttime strike on President Zelenskyy's hometown of Kryvyi Rih in the Southeast, where an apartment building took a direct hit and 12 people were killed.

SHAPIRO: And so what are each of you looking at in the next few months of this conflict? Tom, why don't you go first?

BOWMAN: Well, Ukraine has mounted, as we've been seeing, several attack points in the East and the South to find weak areas in the Russian defenses that they can now punch through. I was talking with a defense analyst, Mark Cancian. He's a retired Marine colonel. He said a concern he has is, can Ukraine push into those weak areas and gain territory before Russia can send in reinforcements? That will be key because Russia is shifting its forces all around the frontlines to try to plug any of those weak spots.

SHAPIRO: And Greg.

MYRE: Yeah, and just to pick up on that, the expectation is that the fighting will last much, if not all, of the summer. Now, the Ukrainians want to drive all the way to the Southeast coast, which would leave the Russian forces divided in the East and the South. But the Ukrainian forces are still more than 60 miles from the coast, and the Russians have multiple layers of defense. It'll be a long, hard slog for the Ukrainians to drive them out.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Greg Meyer in Kyiv and Tom Bowman here in Washington. Thank you both.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

MYRE: Sure thing, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF TANK AND THE BANGAS SONG, "TSA FT. PJ MORTON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.
Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.

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