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Why Ukraine's counteroffensive is going 'slower than desired'

MILES PARKS, HOST:

So until news broke of these extraordinary developments in Russia, the focus in that region had been on this counteroffensive launched by Ukraine. Slower than desired - that's how Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy characterized it earlier this week. He added, quote, "Some people believe this is a Hollywood movie and expect results now. It's not." Ukrainian forces are reported to have recaptured several villages, but there's been no major breakthrough.

We spoke to Mark Cancian yesterday, a retired Marine colonel and a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. We asked him to walk us through what the counteroffensive looks like on the ground.

MARK CANCIAN: The Ukrainians are attacking in three separate locations along the frontier. And the results are a bit disappointing, as President Zelenskyy had indicated, in part because expectations have been very high. But in part, after two weeks, the hope had been that they would be able to get through the Russian defensive lines, which are very powerful, and be able to use this armor that they have been receiving and that they have trained, get into the open fields beyond and make a significant gain of territory.

PARKS: What is making it so difficult to break through this Russian line?

CANCIAN: There are two reasons. The first is that the Russians have had several months to dig in, and they've built very formidable defenses. They have three defensive lines. They have anti-tank ditches. They have anti-tank obstacles. And that's difficult for any military to break through.

The other thing is that the Ukrainians are not terribly well-trained. They've expanded their forces greatly. The United States and NATO have trained some of these units, but not very many. What they're trying to do is very complicated. The military calls it combined arms. That is, you have to get all of the different combat arms working together. The infantry has to work with the artillery and the tanks and the engineers. And that takes a lot of training. It's very difficult, and the Ukrainians are struggling with that.

PARKS: So, Colonel Cancian, you have spent your career in the Marines. I'm wondering, for people who are having trouble kind of imagining what this fighting is like, can you just kind of lay out what this looks like on a practical level?

CANCIAN: Unfortunately, it looks a lot like World War I. There are opposing trench lines. There's a lot of artillery. To capture terrain, the Ukrainians have to leave their trenches and capture their opposite trenches. To do that, they will be using artillery to suppress the Russians so that the Russians can't shoot back. They'll be using engineers to cross the various obstacles. And they'll be using long-range fires to try to keep the Russians from reinforcing the threatened area so they can get through before the Russians can respond.

PARKS: I know there was some sense among American officials that Ukrainian fighters would be - as this war kind of dragged on, would be more committed to the fight than some fighters on the Russian side. How has it looked for the Russians defending against this counteroffensive?

CANCIAN: Well, so far, the Russians have done pretty well. The hopes that they might shatter don't appear to have come to fruition. The Russians, of course, have many problems with morale and logistics and administration, but they seem to be hanging in there and continuing the fight. The Russians are very tenacious in war. They are willing to continue fighting in conditions that many other countries would find unacceptable. And we may be seeing that.

PARKS: Is part of this weaponry issue? Because I know President Zelenskyy has long been asking for F-16 fighter planes. Would that make a big difference here?

CANCIAN: Unfortunately, it would not. F-16s would be useful. First, you have to keep in mind that it would be many months before they would actually show up. But the primary value would be in air defense. If it's - the Russians have been using their long-range missiles to attack Ukrainian cities, particularly Kyiv. F-16s would be very helpful in protecting the cities, especially now that many of the air defense systems that the Ukrainians have are running short of missiles.

They could be used for offensive purposes, but the area over the battle zone is very dangerous for aircraft. The Russians aren't using their aircraft there. The Ukrainians haven't been using theirs very much there. The ground-based air defenses are very powerful. So F-16s, if they got there, would be most valuable in protecting cities, not for helping an offensive.

PARKS: What are the stakes here for this counteroffensive?

CANCIAN: The stakes are high because so much is expected of the Ukrainians having received all this training and all of this equipment. Many commentators had speculated that the Ukrainians might recapture all of their lost territory. There are many questions about Crimea - whether the Ukrainians could capture Crimea. But in recent weeks, both Ukrainians and the U.S. have been trying to tamp down expectations because that's just asking an awful lot.

The Ukrainians do need to show some progress. The risk is that if they don't, then their supporters in the West and their own people will get discouraged. This will look like a forever war and advocates for immediate negotiations and the cease-fire will get stronger.

PARKS: That's Colonel Mark Cancian of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Thanks so much, Mark.

CANCIAN: Thanks for having me on the show. 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.

Miles Parks is a reporter on NPR's Washington Desk. He covers voting and elections, and also reports on breaking news.