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Battles rage in Ukraine's northeast region amid Russia's cross-border assault

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, says Ukrainian soldiers are fighting fierce battles to push back a Russian ground offensive. On Friday, Russian troops launched a surprise offensive into Ukraine's northern region around the Northeastern city of Kharkiv. Then on Saturday, Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, replaced his defense minister.

We'd like to understand what this all means, especially if this represents a turning point in this war, so we've called retired Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman. He recently returned from Ukraine. He's the former Director of European Affairs for the National Security Council, and now he heads a think tank, the Institute for Informed American Leadership. Good morning, lieutenant colonel.

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ALEXANDER VINDMAN: Good morning. Good to be on with you.

MARTIN: Good to have you back with us. How would you characterize the size and scope of this new offensive by Russia?

VINDMAN: I think in certain regards in my mind right now, it looks more like a spoiling attack to help thin out the Ukrainian lines. Ukraine is a massive country, and fighting is already ongoing around about 800 kilometers. This extends the lines another several hundred kilometers or a couple hundred kilometers. It takes forces away from already kind of a depleted Ukrainian military to defend in other more important strategic areas and forces Ukraine to defend around its second largest city, which it has no choice but to do.

And the other thing it probably accomplishes is it pushes Russian troops closer to a position where they could just kind of rain terror on the city, unfortunately, with regular artillery attacks and rocket attacks that will again continue to punish and terrorize the Ukrainian population. It seems still quite limited in scope, but if the Russians achieve some gains, they might double down on success. So far, I would say it's - looks more like a way to allow Russia to conduct more successful attacks in other parts of it.

MARTIN: OK, but why now?

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VINDMAN: I think that this is the summer campaign or spring-summer offensive. I think the Russians were planning something relatively substantial. When I was on the ground in Ukraine, the senior military intelligence leadership flatly said that the next couple of months - so I left in April - May, June, July - were going to be extremely difficult for Ukraine. So I think in some pockets of the Ukrainian military and intelligence apparatus, this was not unexpected. And in many ways, it makes sense. You want to thin out those lines if you are the attacker and enable a much more successful summer offensive for Russia.

MARTIN: Well, you mentioned that the - part of the purpose here is to exhaust the - Ukraine's troops. Ukraine's troops are already exhausted. We understand that their ammunition is running low. Can Ukrainian troops fight back effectively, at this point?

VINDMAN: They can. There are some systemic issues that Ukraine had failed to fix. In terms of mobilizations, one of the reasons they're having so much of a challenge is that they didn't mobilize more manpower in preparation for this defensive or potentially even to liberate territory in the future. U.S. and the West collectively played a role in putting the Ukrainians on their heels with regards to holding back support for six months. The Republicans, you know, had a disastrous campaign of obstruction for a country struggling for democracy.

Now those resources are starting to flow in. The U.S. government had some foresight and prepositioned materiel to be able to get it in there as quickly as possible. It'll flow in in a way that allows the Ukrainians to employ artillery more effectively and other weapons effectively. But I think the margins are going to be pretty thin, and I think the Russians are going to have some successes. They're not going to have anything that's going to really fundamentally change the orientation of the war, but they're likely to have some successes.

MARTIN: And briefly, before we let you go, this - as we said, this longtime Putin ally is out. A new defense minister takes charge. What do you think this says about Putin's strategy in Ukraine?

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VINDMAN: Sure. Well, I think it - I see it a little bit differently, frankly. I see the fact that the second most powerful person in the country, Nikolai Patrushev, the head of the National Security Council, was removed and replaced with another loyalist, both weakening, let's say, opposing factions with Shoigu out of the Ministry of Defence, as well as sidelining the second most powerful man in the National Security Council. So those - I think this is a way to insulate Putin more concretely in his second term, give him a freer hand. It's a little bit more complex than just something around the - specifically around the war.

MARTIN: That is the retired Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman of the Institute for Informed American Leadership, Lieutenant colonel, we always appreciate your insights. Thank you so much for joining us.

VINDMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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