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Newly-secured U.S. military assistance flows into Ukraine amid Russian advance

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The White House today said it's fast-tracking the delivery of Patriot air defense systems to Ukraine. That sense of urgency fits the state of the battlefield as a new Russian advance continues to test Ukraine's ability to fight back in a war that's defied many predictions since Russia's full-scale invasion in 2022. The move also comes as newly secured U.S. military assistance is flowing into Ukraine after months of deliberation and delay on the American side. For more, we turn to NPR's Joanna Kakissis in Kyiv and NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman in Washington. Hello to both of you.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Hello.

CHANG: Hello. OK, so, Tom, I want to start with you. Can you just talk more about this announcement today? Like, what is the urgency for additional air defense systems?

BOWMAN: Well, Ailsa, Russia has stepped up its attacks with missiles and drones on Ukrainian cities, as Joanna knows better than anyone else. And also, they're going after critical infrastructure like the electric grid. So Ukraine has been urging the U.S. for months now to offer more Patriot missile systems to provide that necessary defensive cover. Of course, President Biden hinted last week that this would come, saying, other countries would have to wait.

Also, another point is that Russia still has a very formidable air force that could head into Ukrainian airspace if Ukraine doesn't get more air defenses. That's been a concern for the past two years. Right now, Russian war planes shoot at Ukrainian targets from inside Russia, but that could change if Ukraine's air defenses are degraded.

CHANG: And, Joanna, what is all of that looking like from Kyiv?

KAKISSIS: Well, Ailsa, because of the lack of air defense systems, as Tom mentioned, every day, somewhere around Ukraine, Russian missiles are getting through, injuring people, killing people, destroying buildings and, as Tom said, the energy grid. Russian strikes have taken out at least half of Ukraine's power grid, which means rolling blackouts are now part of everyday life here. And just today, I heard from DTEK, which is Ukraine's private energy supplier, and they told me about yet another attack on a thermal power plant in central Ukraine. Every single one of their thermal power plants have been damaged by Russian attacks. DTEK's chief executive, Maksim Timchenko, wrote on social media today that Ukraine faces a serious crisis this winter if it can't rebuild its energy system and, crucially, defend it from future attacks.

CHANG: And what about attacks on the city of Kharkiv that we've been hearing so much about right now? Like, why is the fighting there so important?

KAKISSIS: So Kharkiv is Ukraine's second-largest city, and it's about 20 miles from the Russian border, which means it's very vulnerable to attacks. And last month, the Russians crossed the border and reopened a new offensive in the war. Ukrainian forces there were waiting for weapons and ammunition. A lot of it still hasn't arrived. We spoke to an ammunition commander with the 57th Brigade there. He only gave us his first name, Nur, for security reasons, and he described how the weapons supply affected their battlefield strategy against a bigger and better-armed enemy.

NUR: (Through interpreter) When we have a lot of ammunition, when we work almost round the clock. But when there is a shortage, we have to wait. We use whatever ammunition is sent to us - shells made in Ukraine, Korean shells, even Iranian ones.

KAKISSIS: He's referring to Iranian ammunition seized by the U.S. and sent to Ukraine. We checked in again with Nur recently, and he said that the front line there has been stabilized but that there are still fierce battles over a key border town and that Kharkiv is still getting bombed, though, you know, much less often than it was last month. A few weeks ago, everyone was worried that Kharkiv might fall to the Russians, but that hasn't happened. The Russians just have not massed enough troops on that border.

BOWMAN: And if I could quickly add, U.S. officials have urged Ukraine to spend this year shoring up its defenses, especially around Kharkiv, and preserving the ground they hold. Just recently, the U.S. allowed Ukraine to fire American-made missiles into Russia to hit missile batteries being fired at Ukraine. The U.S. also wants Ukraine to use longer-range missiles provided by the U.S. to go after critical targets in Crimea to make it untenable for Russian forces. Crimea is the crown jewel for Russia. Now, next year, officials and analysts say Ukraine could go on the offensive again with the additional military hardware from the U.S. and NATO. But before that happens, Ailsa, the U.S. says Ukraine needs a lot more soldiers.

CHANG: Yeah. Well, let's talk about that. Joanna, what about this need for more troops? What have you been hearing?

KAKISSIS: Well, Ukraine's in the middle of this massive conscription drive because of those troop shortages. Ukrainian forces are stretched very thin along the eastern front line, and some were diverted north to Kharkiv after the renewed Russian offensive there. Some conscription-age men are going along with the draft notices, but others, they're really afraid. We just returned from western Ukraine where draft-age men are trying to cross this very dangerous river to escape into Romania.

And we spoke to Julian. He's 26 and of draft age, and he didn't want to give us his last name because he's afraid of getting drafted. He said every man of draft age in his town is hiding because the town is filled with police officers and border guards looking for military-age men to conscript.

JULIAN: (Through interpreter) Not all people are created for war. Those who are have already volunteered for the military. I'm really against forcing people to kill and to die, whether they want to or not.

KAKISSIS: And right now, Ukraine is not conscripting anyone below the age of 25 because there aren't that many young Ukrainian men in that age group. It's actually the smallest cohort of young adults in recent history. There are twice as many Ukrainian men in their 40s as there are in their 20s.

BOWMAN: But if I could quickly add, Ailsa, U.S. officials have been pressing Ukraine to find more younger soldiers under the age of 25. They're saying - listen, the U.S. military, 40% of military service members in the U.S. are under 25. And they're saying to Ukraine, listen, this is an existential threat. You have to find younger soldiers.

CHANG: That was NPR's Tom Bowman in Washington and Joanna Kakissis in Kyiv. Thank you to both of you.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

KAKISSIS: You're welcome. 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.

Tom Bowman
Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.
Joanna Kakissis
Joanna Kakissis is an international correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she leads NPR's bureau and coverage of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.
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