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The view from Ukrainian soldiers, the Pentagon and U.S. lawmakers as the war grind on

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A year ago, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine and stunned the world. Most thought Kyiv would fall. Well, that didn't happen. Ukraine's forces have upended expectations. And through it all, U.S. military aid has played a key role. Now, the invasion has become a grinding war, and some U.S. lawmakers are raising questions about that support. So how does the year ahead look? We're going to put that question to three NPR correspondents - Frank Langfitt in Kyiv, Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman and White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez.

And, Frank, I'm going to let you kick us off since you are there. You're on the ground, and I know you were recently out toward the front lines, in Donbas, in eastern Ukraine, talking with soldiers. What are they saying? What's the mood?

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Well, I got to say, Mary Louise, it was kind of pessimistic. They were saying that the Russians are building up huge numbers on the front lines. They're using everything from convicts, which we've heard about, of course - the Wagner - the mercenary group - as well as new conscripts. They're throwing them into the fight. And the Ukrainians that I talked to just didn't feel like they had the numbers to match the Russians and also not getting the kind of quality of people into the army that they were getting if you go back to the first two months of the war. I was talking to a sergeant named Andriy. He oversees a company of more than 100 reconnaissance soldiers.

ANDRIY: (Non-English language spoken).

LANGFITT: So what he says here is the new people who are coming - the ones who are being mobilized - they're not that motivated. And the core of our forces - the ones who have been with us since the beginning - they're coming to an end. And, Mary Louise, what he means by that is they've been killed.

KELLY: Oh, it's just awful to hear. Stay with those new people - with the new conscripts. I keep thinking of them. These are people who were civilians yesterday, and today they're being sent to the front.

LANGFITT: Yeah, and I've met a number of them. And I watched them being trained, and it's a tall order. Just like Andriy was saying, you know, in the beginning, there were all these highly, highly motivated people. Now, these are people who are sort of being conscripted. Some of them don't get a lot of training - sometimes a few days, couple of weeks, maybe a couple of months if they're lucky - before they're sent to the front. And the ones that I saw seemed quite frightened. And Andriy says some of them - they won't even shoot in battle because they don't want to kill anybody.

KELLY: OK. So that's a little bit of where things stand in Ukraine. Tom Bowman, tell me where things stand at the Pentagon because we keep hearing this is a critical moment in the war, but we've heard that over and over in this war. Where is the Pentagon in terms of where things stand?

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Well, they do say it is critical. General Milley told us it's a critical moment and...

KELLY: The chairman of the joint chiefs.

BOWMAN: Right. And it is because both the Russians and Ukrainians are mounting offensives now or will in the coming weeks and months. Each side is trying to grab more territory to have a better hand in negotiations whenever they come. For the Russians, they're trying to seize more of the east - the Donbas area, where Frank was. And for the Ukrainians, they'll try to push back in that area or maybe try to sever the land bridge to the south between Russia and Ukraine. That would get Putin's attention, and it's probably a better strategic move. You're not likely to see Ukrainians advance until probably April or May, when the ground dries up. And they're also waiting for more troops trained in England and at U.S. sites in Germany. And hopefully those trained troops will be better than the ones that Frank was referring to.

KELLY: Was talking to.

BOWMAN: Correct. And also, they're waiting for more armored vehicles, more tanks. And I spoke about this critical moment with the Pentagon's No. 3 official, Colin Kahl. Let's listen.

COLIN KAHL: Look, I think momentum continues to be important, but mostly because Ukraine needs to claw back as much territory as they can. So it matters on the battlefield. I think there was a lot of speculation going into the winter that European support would soften. I've seen no indication of that. There's speculation in our own political system. I think there's still strong bipartisan support here.

KELLY: Let me jump in and query that point - the strong bipartisan support - and I'll bring you in since you cover politics for us, Franco. What is the take here in D.C.? And start with - the U.S. has sent so much money, so many weapons to Ukraine. Are they able to keep tabs on where it's going and whether it's working?

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: I mean, they say they can. I mean, they do acknowledge that with that amount of money and that amount of weapons that there are risks of those weapons ending up somewhere else that they don't want them to be. Now, they are clear to me that they have not seen any credible evidence of problems. But the administration is, you know, launching a bunch of reviews, doing a lot of oversight. Government auditors have been in Ukraine. And I think that is kind of a sign of some of this concern about the bipartisan support because public sentiment is changing. You're also seeing a lot more Republicans speak out. And Congress has taken action. The House oversight committee sent a letter today to the departments of State, Defense, USAID, asking for more documentation about all that spending. And the House Armed Services Committee is going to have a hearing next week.

KELLY: And what about the political stakes for the president? Joe Biden made clear he is all-in by his presence in Ukraine this week. We think he is likely to run again. We know that foreign policy - a war in Ukraine - is not likely to be the thing that motivates a lot of voters to the ballot box.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. I mean, domestic issues are absolutely going to be the priority in, you know, 2024 if he runs. And, as you noted, we expect him to. You know, we saw that, actually, in his State of the Union address, where he didn't talk about Ukraine till the second hour of his speech. But Biden has staked a lot of his credibility on supporting Ukraine - credibility - international credibility and I'd argue also domestic credibility. You know, his message on this trip was not just about the need to support Ukraine. It wasn't just about Ukraine. It was also about how it was in U.S. interest to stop Russia. You just asked me about money and weapons. What could become a domestic problem for Biden is if there is a scandal - if those weapons show up where they're not supposed to be. You know, folks here in the United States are already pretty weary about the U.S. economy, and it could turn into a big political fight if taxpayer money is not used properly or if it's misused. That could be a real big domestic problem.

KELLY: Yeah. To the point about weapons and when they will show up, let me flip that back to you, Tom. There was a big call for tanks, and now they're on the way. There's a big call now for air power - for F-16s. We'll see. But none of it is arriving on the battlefield today or even tomorrow. What does that tell us?

BOWMAN: Well, weapons are still flowing in. The tanks will come from European countries, not the U.S. - at least not for many months - because those American tanks are still being built by industry. A big question is - how many tanks and armored vehicles will arrive by that spring offensive? That's an uncertain and vital question. Now, they are getting a lot of artillery rounds and ammunition, and that can't come fast enough for Ukraine because they're plowing through artillery rounds.

Now, as far as F-16s, that keeps coming up. Ukraine, some defense analysts, members of Congress are pushing the administration to send F-16s. The administration is saying, no, the training on those takes six months. It's hugely expensive. And Ukraine can make better use of what we're sending now, which is armor like the Bradley fighting vehicle and also artillery rounds. Those are really, really key. You might see the F-16s years down the road, when Ukraine kind of weans itself off Russian-made equipment and starts shifting to U.S. and NATO equipment.

KELLY: Frank Langfitt, I will give you the last word there in Ukraine, and I want to let you respond to some of what we've just been hearing from colleagues here in Washington about the aid coming in, about weapons pouring in, but maybe not quite as fast as Ukraine would like. How do the prospects look for Ukraine's army?

LANGFITT: Well, in terms of the Donbas, I think because the Russian numbers are so big, people were talking to me about the idea of a tactical retreat. I was talking to a sniper by the name of Max. He's a member of that recon team that I was talking about. And he says what he expects is there'll be a tactical retreat where they try to bleed and exhaust the Russians, then mount a counteroffensive, as Tom was referring to, maybe in April or May. But Max was worried, and this is what he told me.

MAX: (Through interpreter) If everything goes wrong, we will have to retreat to the other side of the Dnipro river. The Russians would have to be very well prepared to make the jump across the river.

LANGFITT: What is the chance that we end up with a partitioned Ukraine?

MAX: (Through interpreter) Fifty-fifty - the same chance that we succeed.

LANGFITT: You know, that kind of struck me because it was so direct and so - I don't know, so honest, I suppose. I ought to say, since I saw Max, which was about a week or so ago, he was actually caught in a big, heavy mortar barrage. He has shrapnel wounds to his legs. He's in the hospital for months. But he's a tough guy, and he's in good spirits.

KELLY: NPR's Frank Langfitt, reporting there from Kyiv. We've also been speaking with Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman and White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez. Thanks to all three of you.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.

LANGFITT: Good to talk, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.
Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.
Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.