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Ukraine appears to have started its next big move against Russia


Ukraine appears to have started its next big move against Russia, and Pentagon officials today held a meeting with other nations providing support for the war. Kyiv says it's steadfast in pushing Russia out of the country altogether. Let's begin our coverage with Joanna Kakissis who is in eastern Ukraine. Joanna, tell us where you are and what you're hearing.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: I'm in the eastern city of Kramatorsk. It's not far from the front line. It's about an hour's drive away from actually a very well-known part of the front line, and that's what remains of the city of Bakhmut. It's right now not much of a city because it's just block after block of burning destroyed buildings. Ukrainian forces have been defending Bakhmut for more than 10 months, but the Kremlin says its forces, along with private mercenaries - they've now captured all of it. And, you know, Ukraine is actually disputing that. Instead, the Ukrainians are saying, look, we are actually making gains outside and around the city. And they have suggested that these gains are related to the counteroffensive.

SHAPIRO: Explain what that counteroffensive actually is. A top Ukrainian official said today that it has begun. What is it? What does that mean?

KAKISSIS: Good question. So today, Mykhailo Podolyak, who is an adviser to the head of President Zelenskyy's office, he said, you know, don't expect this big announcement at a specific time with a ribbon cutting to say, hey, the counteroffensive is here because he said, like, attacking Russian positions, ammunition stockpiles and infrastructure like rail lines or oil depots - he sees these as counteroffensive actions. And, you know, we heard roughly the same thing from special forces fighters and reconnaissance soldiers we met recently in the southern city of Kherson. They have spent weeks secretly crossing the Dnipro River into Russian-occupied territory to sabotage Russia's grip in the area and to lay the groundwork for larger military action. And here's one of those fighters. His name is Alex. He's speaking through a translator, and he only gave his first name for security reasons.

ALEX: (Through interpreter) We're waiting at any time for the commanders to tell us what will happen. Don't expect some World War II scene, like millions of soldiers swimming across the Dnipro River. Everything will happen like it's supposed to.

KAKISSIS: And from Alex's perspective, the wheels of the counteroffensive have already started turning.

SHAPIRO: OK, let's take the wider view and bring in NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman who's here in the studio. Tom, I mentioned that military officials from the U.S. and other nations supporting Ukraine met today. What came out of that?

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Well, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Joint Chiefs Chairman General Mark Milley met virtually with a contact group - that's some 50 nations assisting Ukraine. They focused on continued air defenses for Ukraine, and that's key to striking the Russian missiles and drones and also, here's the thing, preventing the Russian air force from flying into Ukrainian airspace. And so far, you know, Russian aircraft, and there were about a thousand of them, have mostly been firing from Russian territory and over the Black Sea. Russian tanks and armor have been hit hard during this invasion, but its air force is still formidable. It would be devastating for Ukraine if Russia gained control of the sky, so that's why you have the air defenses. They also gave an update on F-16 warplanes in Ukraine. Ukrainian pilots will begin training in Europe, but those planes, Ari, won't arrive in time for this counteroffensive.

SHAPIRO: Joanna, what are you hearing from Ukrainian officials about the ultimate goal here?

KAKISSIS: The Ukrainians' biggest goal is very simple and very ambitious. They want to push Russian forces out of every inch of Ukrainian territory. President Zelenskyy is refusing to even consider peace talks with Russia unless that happens. And, you know, some Ukrainian officials have an even bigger endgame like Oleksiy Danilov who's the head of Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council. He told NPR recently that he doesn't think Ukraine will truly be safe unless there is a breakup of the Russian Federation because defeating President Vladimir Putin isn't enough. But the military strategists we spoke to, they say Ukraine's military is taking each battle one step at a time. And right now they're saying, let's try to liberate a little more of our land with this counteroffensive and then reassess after that.

SHAPIRO: So if Ukraine would like to see Russia out of all of its territory, including the Donbas and Crimea, Tom, what do U.S. officials say? What are they hoping Ukraine reasonably accomplishes?

BOWMAN: Well, Ari, they're saying the best-case scenario for Ukraine would be to cut that land bridge between Russia and occupied Crimea. That will be tough. The Russians are dug in with multiple lines of trenches and barriers. But as Joanna points out, you know, they're hitting the supplies, infrastructure, and that could leave these poorly trained and lightly armed Russian forces in a more vulnerable position. Now, as far as victory, what does that look like? Again, Ukraine wants all Russians out. The U.S. isn't willing to say that. I asked Secretary Austin today how he sees victory. Is it a decisive victory by Ukraine, or do you want to just offer enough help so Ukraine has a better hand at the negotiating table? Let's listen.

LLOYD AUSTIN: So in terms of the goals and objectives of Ukraine's campaign, we'll let the Ukrainians decide what that will be. Our goal, as I've said so many times, is make sure that we're providing them what they need to defend their sovereign territory.

SHAPIRO: Provide them what they need. The U.S. seems to be taking a pattern of first saying no to weapons requests and then eventually saying yes.

BOWMAN: Right. From the start, the Biden administration has been playing this balancing act intent on aiding Ukraine militarily but wary of being so escalatory as to antagonize Russia. Some retired officers have complained to me the U.S. has been too incremental in providing military aid. But pressure from Ukraine's President Zelenskyy, NATO allies, and some on Capitol Hill, as well as the Russian brutality against civilians, have all served to ramp up aid with artillery and then tanks and now, of course, F-16s. And Lloyd Austin and others have said this is Ukraine's war. But let's face it, it is being supplied totally by the U.S. and NATO.

SHAPIRO: Joanna, how much is riding on this latest Ukrainian offensive?

KAKISSIS: So, you know, Ukrainian leaders are feeling a lot of pressure right now, Ari. They're asking what happens if this counteroffensive fizzles? Will the U.S. and the European Union really stand by Ukraine as long as it takes? Because if that's a long time and the West sees no progress, what happens? And without progress on the battlefield, you know, Ukrainians themselves see a future of uncertainty in daily airstrikes and a lot of danger. So President Zelenskyy sees that, too. And he knows that this limbo state is destabilizing for Ukrainian society and for his government. And that's why he keeps flying around the world saying we need these advanced weapons as soon as possible so we can win this and hopefully end this conflict on terms favorable to Ukraine.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Joanna Kakissis and Tom Bowman. Thank you both.

KAKISSIS: You're welcome.

BOWMAN: You're welcome. 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.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.
Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.