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How well prepared is Ukraine for its expected counteroffensive?


Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy met with the U.K.'s prime minister today on the heels of meetings with Pope Francis and leaders of Italy, Germany and France. Zelenskyy's tour comes as the leaders of those countries pledge more military aid, including tanks, drones, missiles and ammunition, and as Ukraine is poised to launch an expected counteroffensive against Russia. Here to discuss all of this is Max Bergmann of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Welcome.

MAX BERGMANN: Thanks so much for having me.

CHANG: Thanks for being with us. So how much do we know about this counteroffensive, what it might look like and where Ukraine might try to advance?

BERGMANN: Well, I think the good news is that we don't know a lot. And I think that's quite deliberate, that the Ukrainians don't want to sort of show their hand. I think there's a lot of expectation that the Ukrainians will try to drive southward toward Crimea, at the very least to try to gain more territory and then potentially put Crimea under threat from potential missile barrage. But right now it looks like the Ukrainian counteroffensive is underway in the Donbas, more in the eastern part of Ukraine. Right now they're trying to get Russian forces to move to the east to sort of shore up Bakhmut. And that might create a diversionary tactic where they can head south.

CHANG: Well, in terms of gains that Ukraine might make, if Ukraine pushes far enough south, do you think there's any possibility that it could actually liberate Crimea, or are Russian troops too dug in there?

BERGMANN: Well, I think a lot would have to happen before it's on the verge of potentially trying to take Crimea and liberate Crimea. I think offensives have a number of different objectives. One would be for the Ukrainians to regain territory. Another would be to simply try to destroy as much of the Russian military as possible...

CHANG: Right.

BERGMANN: ...Which would then open for additional offenses. And another is psychological. You know, this might psychologically have an effect perhaps on the Russian population as well if the Ukrainians are making real advances and it looks like the Russian military is not able to cope.

CHANG: And how well-prepared is Ukraine for this in your mind, in terms of troops, weapons, armor, tanks?

BERGMANN: Well, I think they're pretty well-prepared. There's been a quote from a Ukrainian military officer, which I'll sort of paraphrase, that, you know, the war starts - when they start, they're fought by soldiers, and then they're finished by engineers, doctors, lawyers. And so what you've seen is that the Ukrainians have lost a lot of people, as have the Russians, a lot of their trained soldiers. And so you now have a situation where that next line of people that had no experience serving as a soldier are now doing training in Europe and Germany and Poland and other places on Western equipment. So the hope is that these newly trained forces will be able to deploy on the battlefield and make extensive gains, in particular because Russia just went on monthslong offensive that really has gained almost nothing and has really depleted the Russian military and really looks like really hitting Russian morale.

CHANG: And do you have any sense at this point of how Russia might be preparing for a possible counteroffensive?

BERGMANN: What has been clear is that the Russians have been waiting for this. They have really dug in. They've set up kind of World War I-style trench lines with barbed wire and all sorts of barricades that will make it hard for tracked vehicles to make progress. Now, these aren't insurmountable, but the Russians look fairly dug in. The problem that Russians have is the line is fairly long. They're going to have to defend a lot of territory, and they're going to have to sort of guess where the main thrust of the offensive will go.

CHANG: Well, in terms of military aid that Ukraine's expecting to receive, the U.S. has agreed to supply tanks to the country, but those tanks won't arrive until the fall, along with a lot of Germany's promised military aid. So what's your read on the timing here? Like, are we expecting a smaller counteroffensive by Ukraine now and then maybe a bigger push in the fall?

BERGMANN: Well, I think that remains to be seen. I think, look; any commitment right now of tanks is all to the good if you're Ukrainian because what the Ukrainians have to think about is that if they do an offensive with the tanks that they have, what happens if those tanks get destroyed? And if they don't know that they're not going to have another shipment of tanks coming in the fall, then they might have to hold back even more. So I think the fact that they know that they're going to have Abrams tanks from the United States arriving - they can sort of weigh how much risk they can actually take with their current force. And so I think that's really critical that the commitments to Ukraine continue.

CHANG: Max Bergmann directs the Europe, Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Thank you very much for joining us.

BERGMANN: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.