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After major setbacks in the war with Ukraine, Russian forces regroup

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Satellite images show Russian troops are massing in eastern Ukraine. It appears a big offensive is on the horizon, and this new stage of the war could differ in many ways from the past seven weeks of Russian assaults on Ukraine. We've got NPR national security correspond Greg Myre with us. Greg, assuming Russia launches this big offensive in the eastern part of Ukraine, how will it be different from what we've seen so far?

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Well, Russian leader Vladimir Putin has made it clear in some remarks yesterday that he is going to press on with the war. But it's really important to note that he has scaled back his military aims, at least for now. When Russia invaded back on February 24, they entered Ukraine from three separate directions - north, east and south - and there was this clear goal of a sweeping victory throughout Ukraine. But Putin had to cut his losses in the north, and he withdrew all the Russian troops around the capital, Kyiv. We still see lots of heavy fighting in the south. But that really leaves the east. And Putin stressed in these remarks yesterday that the east would be the focus of the Russian campaign, and we should note, it's the place where conditions are most favorable for the Russians.

MARTINEZ: Why? Why would the Russians do better there than elsewhere?

MYRE: Well, let's start with the terrain. In northern Ukraine, it was well-suited for small Ukrainian units ambushing columns of Russian tanks. The rural areas there have lots of woods, good cover for hit-and-run attacks. The urban areas also lend themselves to these guerrilla-style attacks. So these were good places for the outgunned Ukrainians to fight. It's very different in the east. That has a lot of farmland, lots of big wheat fields and corn fields and wide-open spaces. So the Ukrainians, with fewer weapons - or smaller weapons, will find it hard to sneak up on the Russians. The battlefields will be more suited to Russia's hulking armored vehicles and big artillery guns.

MARTINEZ: So speaking of weapons, then, are Ukrainians making any headway in getting arms to match the Russians?

MYRE: Well, the Ukrainians are getting a lot of weapons, though, to this point, they've been mostly smaller ones - like rifles, machine guns, shoulder-fired missiles. But Ukraine has been very persistent in its pleas for larger weapons, and this really has changed the conversation with the U.S. and NATO. We're really seeing signs that the Biden administration may be getting close to a new weapons package and that it could include some of these larger systems - armored vehicles, that sort of thing. Now, the Ukrainians would need them in a hurry if they plan to match the Russians when it comes to sort of head-on battles.

MARTINEZ: What if - what about something that's not necessarily measurable, like morale? It seems like that would favor Ukraine, right?

MYRE: Yeah, that's true. I mean, Ukraine has clearly had the momentum for most of the past seven weeks with higher morale. It has international support. It's winning the information war. The Ukrainians have seen their cities and towns destroyed in many places. They know they're fighting for the survival of the country. Their goals are quite clear - quite stark, in fact. You know, in contrast, the Russians have been forced to retreat and regroup. Their goals are still fuzzy in many ways. Does Putin want just eastern Ukraine? Does he still dream of taking the capital and installing a new government? So I think many Russian troops, if you were in position to ask them, would be pretty hard-pressed to explain exactly what they're fighting for.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Greg Myre. Greg, thanks.

MYRE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
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.