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Tens of thousands of new Russian troops are forcing Ukrainian soldiers to pull back

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Russian forces have begun an offensive in Ukraine.

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

Tens of thousands of new troops are forcing Ukrainian soldiers to pull back. This Russian attack comes near the one-year anniversary of the invasion. Ukraine's American allies expect to see more fighting in the weeks ahead. General Mark Milley spoke with our colleague Leila Fadel this week.

MARK MILLEY: Now, as we get into the spring, as thaw comes here in probably a few more weeks - you're looking at the March-April time frame - you are likely to see more movement, more offensive operations. So I do think this is a critical moment.

INSKEEP: That interview is part of an upcoming NPR special on the war's first year. NPR's Tom Bowman, our Pentagon correspondent, is here to talk about the second year. Tom, good morning.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What are the Russians really doing?

BOWMAN: Well, it seems the Russians have started their counteroffensive. And what they want to do is gain even more ground in the eastern part of the country, in the Donbas, with the first-year anniversary coming next week. A lot more troops are heading in, and the sense is more towns in the east will fall to the Russian forces who, again, are trying to make gains. Russia is taking huge amounts of casualties, and they've lost a lot of tanks and armor. But, again, tens of thousands of Russian troops flowing in. And, Steve, there's a saying that quantity has a quality all its own, and that comes from a former Soviet leader named Joseph Stalin.

INSKEEP: Tom, Ukrainian officials began 2023 talking about moving the other way, as did their American supporters, talking about a Ukrainian offensive or counteroffensive to take even more territory back from the Russians. What happened to that?

BOWMAN: Well, we're likely to see it in, as General Milley said, probably sometime in the spring, maybe April or even into May, when the ground dries out and also when they get their tanks and armor and better trained troops. Ukrainian troops are training in England in small units, and larger units are doing training at U.S. training facilities in Germany. They want to make sure they have, again, all the armor and the trained troops before they mount this counteroffensive.

INSKEEP: I want to call attention to something General Milley said. He said this is a critical moment. But people are always saying that various moments in this war are critical moments. What about this particular set of offensives and counteroffensives would be critical?

BOWMAN: Well, I think it's critical for the Ukrainians. They have to show NATO and the U.S. that they can actually achieve something. Can they push the Russians back in the eastern part of the country? Or can they, as some say - will likely head south and split that Russian land bridge that goes from Russia to Crimea. The sense is they may push into Melitopol on the Sea of Azov. That would prevent the Russians from supplying their forces in Crimea because the only other way in by land is that bridge that, you remember, the Ukrainians partially destroyed a while back. But what can the Ukrainians achieve? Now, they say they want to push all the Russians out of the entire country. General Milley and others have said, you're not going be able to do that. And also, the Russians wanted to take the entire country. General Milley said they can't do that either. So what can they do?

INSKEEP: U.S. officials have said again and again they will support Ukraine for as long as it takes. But let me interrogate that a little bit. Is there something of a time pressure here for the Ukrainians, that they know that their support from the international community maybe can't go forever?

BOWMAN: I think that's probably right. If they can't achieve much, you may start to see some European countries start to say, we can't keep this thing going forever. The United States may say we're with you right to the end. But you might see some of those European countries, because of the cost of this, saying, you know what? It's really time to sit down at a negotiating table.

INSKEEP: NPR's Tom Bowman, thanks so much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.