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What's next for the war in Ukraine

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

After nearly seven months of war in Ukraine, a lot has happened recently. There was Ukraine's successful counteroffensive in the east. Then, the Kremlin ordered more Russian troops to mobilize, and its puppet authorities in Ukraine announced plans that would lead to further annexation of Russian occupied territory. And if all that is not enough, Russian President Vladimir Putin is threatening to deploy nuclear weapons. Three members of Ukraine's parliament recently met their U.S. congressional counterparts and requested longer-range artillery and tanks. Here's how one of those lawmakers put it through an interpreter.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) In order to actually drive Russia out of our territory, we do need more weapons.

KELLY: More weapons - well, we have got NPR's Jason Beaubien in eastern Ukraine and our Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman here in the studio with me to walk us through this. Welcome to you both.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Thanks, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Jason, I will let you kick us off. You're in eastern Ukraine right now. I'll let you tell us exactly where, but this is where we've just seen this successful counteroffensive. What does it look like? What are you hearing?

BEAUBIEN: Yeah, that's right. I'm in the city of Kharkiv, in the northeast of the country. And one of the things that we're seeing is a lot of military equipment that the Ukrainians seized from the retreating Russian forces during this latest counteroffensive. You're seeing tanks being hauled off on flatbed trucks. You're seeing armored personnel carriers rolling through the streets. And you can tell that this stuff was seized from the Russians because the Russians have spray-painted on almost all of their equipment a white Z...

KELLY: Oh.

BEAUBIEN: ...On the side of it. Some of this equipment has been completely destroyed. But you also see, by the side of the road, as you're driving through some of these recently liberated territories, Ukrainian soldiers are out there in the ditch, trying to, like, put new tracks on a stuck Russian tank. Officials are saying, here in Ukraine, that they have gained dozens, potentially hundreds of additional tanks during this counteroffensive. There's also been a lot of ammunition that was left behind by Russian-aligned forces. I was in this one tiny, little town that had been right on the front line prior to the counteroffensive, and residents there were showing me piles of rocket-propelled grenades and boxes of ammunition that the Russians had left behind as they fled.

KELLY: Tom, talk to me about those Ukrainian lawmakers we just mentioned who came to Washington. You talked to one of them.

BOWMAN: Right. There were three Ukrainian lawmakers here. I spoke with one of them, Roman Kostenko, who is also, by the way, an Army colonel. And, again, they want American tanks, longer-range artillery. Now, Ukraine is getting tanks from Poland, and a couple of dozen more will be provided by Slovenia. All those are Soviet-era tanks, but the American tanks have greater firepower and are faster. That's why they want them. Now, with artillery, there's a system called HIMARS provided by the U.S. Sixteen of these highly accurate rocket artillery pieces are now in the fight. Now, the rounds the U.S. provides can only travel up to 50 miles. But Colonel Kostenko told me they want rounds that can travel up to nearly 200 miles. And he said that's on the list. Now, let's listen to what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROMAN KOSTENKO: (Through interpreter) HIMARS is only one of the items on that list. And as we talked with the members of Congress, we emphasized that, in order to regain our territories that are now under Russian occupation, we need more offensive types of weapons. And so we were raising questions about such weapons as tanks, aircraft, armored vehicles - things we need in order to successfully continue the offensive.

KELLY: Is the U.S. going to keep providing more weapons? Will we provide this additional military aid?

BOWMAN: You know, it's uncertain. Officials fear that providing the longer-range artillery could hit targets deep inside Russia, and they don't want to further antagonize Vladimir Putin. And a senior defense official said the U.S. may provide tanks in the future, but not for the immediate fight. This official said the Ukrainians are familiar with the Soviet-era tanks and would need further training on the American one, both how to operate them and maintain them. Now, with Russian President Vladimir Putin's call to bring up 300,000 reservists, that may spur even more talk of giving the Ukrainians these more powerful weapons. And the people I talk with, Mary Louise, say it's more likely you'll see longer range artillery shells, but not the tanks. So we'll just have to see.

KELLY: Jason, what are you hearing about all this, actually inside Ukraine - this need for more weaponry that the Ukrainians are putting out there?

BEAUBIEN: Yeah, despite that recent haul of seized Russian weapons from the counteroffensive, officials in Kyiv are saying that they really need these modern Western weapons and that they are highly effective - you know, particularly as Tom mentioned, the longer-range missiles and also equipment for air defense systems. There's sort of two prongs to this. First, they want these better weapons to try to really aggressively push forward with another counteroffensive in the south of the country at a time when Russia is clearly on its back foot. You know, this is sort of like Muhammad Ali would come charging out of his corner at this point, from a tactical point of view, and really try to push back the Russians from the territory that they've taken here.

The second prong is defensive. Ukrainian officials and, you know, even local people that I talked to - they're very concerned that this could turn into a long, drawn-out conflict. And if that happens, they want to be able to protect their cities against Russian rocket attacks. At the moment, Russian cruise missiles can still strike anywhere in the country. You know, since the invasion, all commercial air traffic in Ukraine has been shut down. A better air defense system might allow them to get at least an airport out in Lviv, in the west of the country, open. And, you know, you're hardly even seeing any military aircraft in the air here. Ukrainians really would like some international help in regaining control of their airspace.

KELLY: Before I let you both go, Jason, respond to something Tom just dropped into the conversation - that Russia may be possibly sending up to 300,000 more troops. How is that news being received in Ukraine?

BEAUBIEN: You know, I have to say, Ukrainians seem remarkably unfazed by Putin's latest saber-rattling. People are saying that, so far, they've dealt with everything Russia's been throwing at them. It's been tough, but they say that they're going to deal with whatever comes next.

KELLY: That's NPR's Jason Beaubien reporting from eastern Ukraine and NPR's Tom Bowman covering all things Pentagon. Thanks to you both.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.
Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.