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Ukraine begins offensive in south to take back territory from Russia

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The Ukrainian military says it is beginning attacks in the southern part of the country to take back territory captured by the Russians. Ukrainian officials have talked about a major counteroffensive for months, but the military has failed to recapture much territory.

For more on what's happening on the ground and what it means, we turn now to NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman and NPR's Frank Langfitt, who was near the front lines this morning in Ukraine's Mykolaiv region. Hi to both of you.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: So, Frank, let's start with you. How is Ukraine explaining what exactly is happening right now?

LANGFITT: You know, the Southern Command down here is saying the Ukrainian Army is attacking the Russians from several directions. And I think, ultimately, the goal would be to take back the Kherson region and Kherson city. This is a strategic port that leads into the Black Sea. It's also symbolic. It's the only regional capital to fall to the Russians. But exactly how big this effort we're seeing just today is not clear.

I'd been in touch with a number of soldiers in the field today, and I asked, you know, is this the long-promised counteroffensive that we've been hearing about from the government? And one said, I hope so. Another said things looked a bit abstract. Another said this definitely is. And even another said, well, it's the start of something, but he wasn't quite sure what. So I think that, even in the battlefield, it's not entirely clear what's going on, and we're going to have to see how this plays out over the next few days.

CHANG: OK, well, Tom, how is the Pentagon framing what's happening?

BOWMAN: Well, we had a background briefing with a senior military official, and he said call the Ukrainians and ask them what's going on. And I said, well, we're talking to you. And he said he's seen an uptick in fighting around the Kherson area; no particulars or any offensive or counteroffensive. He said Ukrainians are making some small advances. And we pressed him on it and said, you know, is this a counteroffensive or not? And he said, well, you know, there's some offensive moves. Is this a larger counteroffensive? He said, I don't know. We'll know more in the next 24 to 48 hours.

And earlier today, I spoke with another official who also was more circumspect. He said, listen, the Ukrainians have done a really good job at shaping the battlefield - hitting Russian command centers, troop concentrations, weapon depots - behind the lines in preparation for a counteroffensive. But he said it remains to be seen if this is the start of something big.

You know, I was talking to a military intelligence official, and he said, what is the goal if there is a counteroffensive? Is it Kherson? Is it somewhere else? And also, if you can seize Kherson, then what? Can you hold it? That's going to be key. I think a lot of people don't believe that Ukraine can push out Russian forces from the entire country.

CHANG: OK. Well, whether this is truly a counteroffensive or not, Frank, as we mentioned, you were out near the front lines today. Did you see much evidence that Ukrainians are indeed stepping up attacks?

LANGFITT: Yeah, I did. I went to this small village to interview infantry. And when I arrived, I found out they'd been sent to the front lines, which was clearly a sign of something. And I was talking to the local village head, and she told me the Ukrainians had taken two villages overnight. And as I was talking to her, I started to hear more and more outgoing artillery, saw more tanks, armored personnel carriers moving quickly along the roads. And finally, the press officer who was escorting us signaled me to wrap up the interview, and we quickly headed out of the village for our own safety.

CHANG: Well, what I want to understand is - Ukrainians have been talking about a counteroffensive for quite a while now. What has been holding that up?

LANGFITT: Well, they've been making really - just like Tom was saying, they've been making really slow progress. The village where I was this morning, Ailsa - in April, it was a mile from the front lines. Today, it's about six miles. So that means the progress is five miles in four months. The Ukrainians say that the Russians are well dug in. They've sent a lot more troops down to the Kherson region. And they also say that the Russians still have them outgunned.

Now, in recent months, there has been a change. The Ukrainians have more long-range, more precise weapons - we're talking about what are called M777 Howitzers from the Americans as well as the HIMAR rockets, which are - frankly, the Ukrainian troops rave about. I even saw some last week launch from a field. They're highly effective and accurate, but the Ukrainians keep saying they simply don't have enough of these, which, Ailsa, raises the question - you know, can you mount a big offensive and be successful without more of these heavy weapons?

BOWMAN: And along those lines, they're also - over a week ago, the Pentagon said, we're going to send dozens of armored vehicles - MRAPs, they're called - up-armored Humvees and also armored vehicles with rollers on the front to detonate mines, which you would need for some sort of a counteroffensive; also, surveillance drones and also kamikaze ones that could attack Russian armor or troop concentrations. That was just a little over a week ago. All that stuff would be vital in a counteroffensive. The question is, has it arrived yet? And we really don't know at this point, but that tells you they clearly are preparing for something big.

CHANG: Well, Tom, can you just explain why a counteroffensive, particularly now, is so important for Ukraine?

BOWMAN: Well, again, Ukrainians and some Western officials have been telegraphing a counteroffensive for a while now. But, again, just last week, a senior defense official said there's been little movement from either the Ukrainians or the Russian forces. It's been that way for weeks. So I think, as more equipment comes in from the West, Ukraine realizes it must show it can seize and also hold ground. That's important for both its citizens and also for U.S. and NATO countries. And before winter sets in, I think there has to be progress, or you're going to see some voices, especially in Europe - and Frank knows this better than anyone - might start calling for talks to end the war. It's taken a huge toll, in particular on the European economy and also its energy needs.

LANGFITT: Yeah, the greatest fear when I talk to Ukrainian commanders is that they won't have enough weapons from their perspective, and they'll end up having to go to a negotiating table with a weak hand and end up having to be in a position where they might have to cede land, which they absolutely don't want to do. Why the sense of urgency right now? In a few months, there won't be any leaves on the trees down here. This is flat farm land. And so it won't be possible to mount offensives because you'll have no place for cover. You'll be completely exposed.

CHANG: Right.

LANGFITT: And one commander I was talking to was just really anxious and said, you know, we're running out of time to be able to do much right now.

CHANG: That was NPR's Frank Langfitt and Tom Bowman. Thank you to you both.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

LANGFITT: Great to talk, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.
Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.