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Ukraine is under pressure to step up its advances against Russia before winter sets in

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

When Ukraine launched a major military offensive in June, expectations ran high. But the Ukrainians have made only limited advances against Russian forces, and winter is on the horizon. NPR's Greg Myre is with us now to take stock of the Ukrainian effort. Hi, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Ayesha.

RASCOE: So, Greg, you've reported extensively from Ukraine. What are Ukraine's prospects for taking back more territory before weather turns bad?

MYRE: Well, it's certainly possible. But if Ukraine is going to make a major breakthrough before the winter sets in, it needs to happen fairly soon. The top U.S. general, Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, addressed this question recently in an interview with the BBC.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARK MILLEY: The Ukrainians are still plugging away with steady progress, and there's still a reasonable amount of time, probably about 30 to 45 days' worth, of fighting weather left.

MYRE: The Ukrainian forces are trying to advance on three separate fronts in the south and east, and they've moved forward several miles in several months of heavy fighting. But they're still well short of their own stated goal, which is to push about 50 miles to the southeast coast and split the Russian forces in two, leaving them much more vulnerable. So far, the Russians remain deeply entrenched and are really contesting every bit of territory.

RASCOE: So, I mean, if the front lines don't change, you know, in the next few weeks, like, does that mean that we're looking at a stalemate over the winter?

MYRE: That's certainly a possibility, Ayesha. And to take a step back, Russia launched a full-scale invasion in February of last year, and lots of territory changed hands last year. But since the beginning of this year, very little territory has changed hands. So it does raise the question of what comes next or even how the war might end. And I spoke about this with Charles Kupchan. He's a former diplomat and national security official.

CHARLES KUPCHAN: When this offensive reaches its limits, which it will probably do in a couple of months when it gets muddy, what do we do then? The Ukraine is suffering terrible loss of life. And as a consequence, one has to ask, might Ukraine be better off trying to get a cease-fire and beginning the process of rebuilding?

MYRE: So Kupchan was part of a small unofficial group that met quietly this year with Russian officials. And he's faced considerable pushback for raising the possibility of a cease-fire or a permanent agreement at a time when the U.S. and Ukrainian governments are still very much focused on the battlefield.

RASCOE: Is there a reason to believe that either the Ukrainians or the Russians are even interested in negotiation?

MYRE: We're really not seeing that. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the Ukrainian leader, who will be in the U.S. this week at the United Nations, says it's unrealistic to negotiate with Russian leader Vladimir Putin. He says Ukraine's goal is to reclaim all its territory, and the Russians still hold about 15, 16% of Ukraine's land. And most Ukrainians agree. The polls show that 80% or more of the Ukrainians want to keep on fighting to drive out the Russians even if that means a protracted war. And that was certainly my experience talking to Ukrainians recently.

And as for Putin, this past week, he met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in order to secure more weapons. Now, you don't normally think of North Korea as a land of abundance, but they do have artillery shells, and that's what Putin needs. He seems to believe he can outlast Ukraine and that the U.S. and Europe will tire of supporting Ukraine and that the war will sort of eventually break in his favor.

RASCOE: We've been talking about fighting on the front lines, but what else are you keeping an eye on?

MYRE: Well, attacks behind the front lines inside Ukraine. You know, just this week, Ukraine claimed a couple of significant attacks in Crimea, the peninsula in the south, where it says it inflicted damage on a Russian submarine and Russian warships. So Ukraine is now regularly hitting Russian supply lines and ammo dumps miles behind the front lines using missiles from the west. And bit by bit, this makes it harder for Russia to resupply its troops in Ukraine.

RASCOE: What about reports of attacks inside Russia itself?

MYRE: So that's something we're seeing with increasing frequency. Ukraine is now making its own drones, which can reach Moscow 300 miles away. Several times, they forced Russia to temporarily shut down airports in the capital. So it's hard to measure exactly how much impact this is having on Russia's overall war effort. But it's clear that Ukraine's ability to carry out these long-range attacks has expanded dramatically over the past year and continues to get stronger.

RASCOE: That's NPR's Greg Myre. Greg, thank you so much.

MYRE: Sure thing, Ayesha.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) 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.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.