The differences between what Russia and Ukraine say is happening on the ground
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
To the growing gap now between what Russia says is happening in Ukraine and reality on the ground - Russia insists it has annexed parts of Ukraine. It says it's pouring in hundreds of thousands more troops, but Ukrainian troops keep pushing a counteroffensive in the country's south and east, and they keep upending the Kremlin's plans. In southern Ukraine is where we find NPR's Jason Beaubien. And I want to let you listen in to how his reporting compares with what our Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman, is hearing here in Washington. Hi, you two.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good to be with you.
JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Yeah, it's great to be with you.
KELLY: Jason. You get to start because you're actually there.
KELLY: Tell me exactly where you are - what you're seeing.
BEAUBIEN: Yeah. So I'm in the port city of Odesa. It's on the south coast, down on the Black Sea. This is very close to the southern offensive that's happening in the Kherson region. And Ukrainian troops have really made some significant progress here, in the south, over the last week. They've been saying for months that they're going to launch a counteroffensive here, and this week it really started to get going. Ukrainian officials say they've taken about 400 square kilometers of territory back from Russian forces over the last few days, even. And this is all on the west bank of the Dnipro River. The Ukrainians are pushing south from this northern line down towards the city of Kherson, and they're gearing up for far more resistance when they try to actually take that larger city.
Mainly, they're kind of going through farmland at the moment, and they're finding that these Russian lines are collapsing quite quickly. One crucial thing - military officials are telling me that they're acquiring more military equipment - even some tanks - as the Russians have been abandoning these positions and retreating, and Ukrainian officials really feel like they've got the momentum in this fight right now.
KELLY: So Russian weapons are actually now supplying the Ukrainian troops who are fighting back against them.
KELLY: There are also weapons coming from the U.S., of course. And Tom, another package on that front was announced just this week. What is it?
BOWMAN: Well, still another package, Mary Louise - this one includes more than two dozen howitzers, tens of thousands of artillery rounds, a couple of hundred armored vehicles. Now, the big thing in this package is long-range rocket artillery, called HIMARS, which has been very effective, as we've all heard. The U.S. already provided 16 of these. A senior Pentagon official, Laura Cooper, told reporters more are coming in just a few weeks. Let's listen.
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LAURA COOPER: So having these additional four HIMARS is going to enable the Ukrainians - and the other capabilities, as well - to have flexibility in how they employ these capabilities with their forces as they look for additional opportunities to seize the strategic advantage.
BOWMAN: Meaning they have flexibility to send this key equipment to the fronts in the east or the south, where Jason is. Now, the HIMARS' artillery rounds, Mary Louise, are extremely accurate - can travel about 50 miles. Ukrainians and some in Congress want the rounds that can travel - get this - nearly 200 miles. We've been talking about those a lot, but the White House is still reluctant because they fear that this would further provoke Russia.
BEAUBIEN: The Ukrainians really would like to get those longer-range ones, in part because, even from the positions that they control now - like near where I am, here in Odesa - they would then be able to hit some of these Russian bases in Crimea. And they think that would really help disrupt some of the Russian supply lines - make things more difficult for them. And I've been asking people here whether they think these weapons are going to get here soon because time is very much of the essence from the Ukrainian perspective. And one spokeswoman for the Southern Command - she told me today that she expects that these will actually be arriving quite quickly. That's what they've seen in the past, and they expect that with this allocation as well.
KELLY: Although aren't the Russian forces also getting some new military capabilities? I keep seeing all these reports about drones from Iran.
BEAUBIEN: Yes. And even just this afternoon, there were some drone strikes right around here - around Odesa - and officials say that they also managed to shoot down a couple that were trying to come in. Tehran continues to insist that they are not supplying drones to Moscow, but military officials here say they've seen a sharp uptick in these drone attacks over the last couple of weeks. And they say they've shot several of them down, and they go and they look at what's in this wreckage, and it's clearly from Iranian-made drones.
And the thinking here is that this is a sign that Russia is running low on its more expensive missiles. While the drones are harder to detect and slower than a missile, they are less expensive. That Southern Command spokeswoman that I was talking to earlier - she said that, according to their tally, Ukraine has shot down 35 of these drones here - just in this region alone - while 24 of them have made it through and hit their targets.
KELLY: Meanwhile, Tom Bowman, what are you hearing when you ask officials at the Pentagon, officials elsewhere in Washington, when you ask about this sense that Ukraine has the momentum - that Ukraine is succeeding on the battlefield?
BOWMAN: Right. Well, you know, U.S. officials are surprised and, you know, really positive about the Ukrainian moves so far, particularly in the east, pushing forward and grabbing the city of Lyman, and they expect them to move farther east. And, again, it really is amazing that they've been able to do this so far, but their concern is they want to make sure that the Ukrainians can hold the territory they've grabbed and not overrun their supply lines. That's a big concern. But again, they're moving now into the northern Donbas area - the Luhansk area, which has been held by the Russians for quite some time. And, again, the Americans are hopeful that they'll keep pushing ahead. It really is amazing.
KELLY: Can I steer us back, Jason, to the battle to control Kherson?
KELLY: You have mentioned that a couple times, and I just want to focus on why this is seen as so key.
BEAUBIEN: Well, certainly, it's very important to Moscow, in part because the city of Kherson is the only regional capital that they actually managed to grab and still hold during this entire eight months of war so far. So it's very crucial to them. This would be a major loss if they lost Kherson. But Kherson is also much more difficult to conduct offensive maneuvers in then Kharkiv, where there was - in the northeast, where that other counteroffensive happened by the Ukrainians.
Again, this woman I was talking to from the Southern Command today - she was basically downplaying expectations that there's going to be a rapid sweep through Kherson - Kherson is also the region as well as the city - through the Kherson region like there was in Kharkiv. She says, the Russians are well dug in here. The terrain is very flat, and advancing troops are very exposed as they're trying to move across it. And she adds that the winter is going to make things even more difficult for Ukrainian troops as they try to move into some of these positions that are well defended by the Russians.
BOWMAN: And here's another challenge with Kherson area. You know, the Ukrainians need to use pontoon bridges to cross this river down there, and the Russians are targeting the bridging equipment. U.S. officials are hopeful Ukrainian forces can push the Russians out of Kherson before year's end, into the far side of the larger Dnipro River. Then, that river would be a natural barrier, preventing the Russians from coming back. And here's the big thing about that - if that does happen, that will allow Ukrainian forces, I'm told, to move more of their troops to that eastern Donbas fight.
KELLY: Yeah. Tom, one last quick thing before I let you go - Russia says they are sending 300,000 additional troops. That's a lot. Won't that make a difference?
BOWMAN: Well, here's the thing. You know, Russia's still trying to raise those conscript forces. We're not seeing many yet, and Pentagon officials doubt they can even reach that number. And even if they do, Mary Louise, those troops will be poorly trained and equipped, and they're going to show up with their comrades, who are - also have very low morale. So they don't think it's really - even if they get that number, it's not going to be very effective.
KELLY: That is NPR's Tom Bowman reporting on the Pentagon and Jason Beaubien reporting from Odesa, Ukraine. Thanks so much to you both for sharing a little bit of your reporter's notebooks.
BOWMAN: You're welcome.
BEAUBIEN: No, thank you, Mary Louise.
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