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How Ukraine broke the stalemate with Russia

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

As we've just heard, Ukrainians are closely following this military offensive. But how did Ukraine carry out this lightning operation after two months of a virtual stalemate in the war? To hear how Ukraine pulled it off, we're joined by NPR's national security correspondent Greg Myre. Hey, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Juana.

SUMMERS: So before we break this down, can you tell us where the Ukrainian offensive stands right now?

MYRE: Well, it's still ongoing. The Ukrainians have taken around two dozen towns and villages in these past few days. It's spread over a thousand square miles. Now, Russia had to fight long and hard for weeks and weeks to take over these towns. And now it's lost them in days without really putting up a fight. And the significance is that it will be much, much harder for Russia to resupply its forces in the east, which has been the main battleground. And one important town in particular we want to highlight - it's called Izium. It's this road and railway hub. Russian troops and vehicles and supplies all flowed through this town for months. Now it's in Ukrainian hands.

SUMMERS: OK, Greg, now, until just a few days ago, we were talking about a Ukrainian offensive in the south of the country. And this big breakthrough in the east seemed to, frankly, come out of nowhere. How did this happen?

MYRE: Yeah. Ukraine was publicly talking about an offensive in the south, and it seemed to be taking away their own element of surprise. The Russians believed them. They began moving some of their best Russian troops from the east to the south to reinforce positions there. Ukraine did, in fact, launch an offensive in the south a couple weeks ago. But the bigger Ukrainian offensive is taking place exactly where these Russian troops pulled out in the east. Military analyst Dmitri Alperovitch says this is a major development.

DMITRI ALPEROVITCH: This pullback was one of the biggest blunders of the war thus far. It presented an incredible opportunity for the Ukrainians to move forward and capture these critical supply railroad junctures. And that presents really significant problems for the Russians.

SUMMERS: And, Greg, what role has U.S. assistance played in this offensive?

MYRE: Well, it's been very significant, at least in terms of laying the groundwork for this offensive. This has been an artillery war, and the U.S. keeps providing longer-range and more powerful artillery weapons, particularly these HIMARS, which allows Ukraine to fire accurately for up to 50 miles. This is the kind of capability Ukraine simply didn't have at the beginning of the war. And now on the intelligence front, we don't know the specifics. Neither side is talking about it. But we do know intelligence sharing between the Ukrainians and the Americans has been going on throughout the war. We know they're in contact on a daily basis. And given this background, it's very reasonable to assume the U.S. and Ukrainians are surely comparing notes about the Russian military and where they see it as most vulnerable.

SUMMERS: And what about Russia? How is Russia responding?

MYRE: Well, Russia keeps trying to present this as some sort of orderly pullback, but the evidence to the contrary is just absolutely overwhelming. The Russians abandoned this large quantities of military equipment. It's spawning all these jokes that Russia has become Ukraine's largest military supplier. And on the ground, Russia hasn't countered the Ukraine advance, but it has fired dozens of missiles to take out electrical power stations. And I think we haven't seen how Russia is going to respond in the east and one region where it had made some progress. Again, here's Dmitri Alperovitch.

ALPEROVITCH: What this means strategically is that it will make it very, very difficult for the Russians to execute ongoing operations. So strategically, it's a huge victory for Ukraine.

SUMMERS: So to your mind, is it fair to call this a turning point in the war?

MYRE: You know, probably a little early to say that definitively, but it certainly could be. I mean, there was this real question about whether Ukraine could reverse Russian gains. And now we have a clear answer. Yes, they can. We could also say this is really the third major battlefield development of the war. First, the Russians tried to seize the capital, Kyiv, at the very start, but they were stopped and had to retreat. And then second, Russia had this massive, grinding push to take territory in the east in the spring and the summer, and now Ukraine's lightning advance has reclaimed a big chunk of this territory.

SUMMERS: All right, Greg. Thanks so much.

MYRE: My pleasure.

SUMMERS: That was NPR's Greg Myre. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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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.