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The top U.S. military officer discusses Ukraine's renewed efforts to push Russia out

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The map of Ukraine shows it's divided by the Dnieper River. It cuts the country roughly in half, and Russia's invasion has mostly come to its east. But here and there, Russian forces have crossed to the west bank, and that includes the place where they crossed to capture the city of Kherson. Now Ukraine has begun a counteroffensive, hoping to trap those Russian forces in a place where the water makes it hard to retreat. It's a test of whether either of these large and well-armed forces can gain a real advantage. We discussed this with U.S. General Mark Milley. President Biden's top military advisor was in Germany meeting with Ukraine's other allies.

MARK MILLEY: The Russians did succeed in getting across the Dnieper River, so in the vicinity of Kherson.

INSKEEP: Right.

MILLEY: So it's a small salient of Russian forces that are across the river. So this counteroffensive is designed to restore the river line, if you will.

INSKEEP: Do they have a real opportunity, General, to press those Russian forces back against the river and trap them there?

MILLEY: Well, there's a series of bridges that are across the Dnieper River, and those bridges have been destroyed or partially destroyed. Now, the Russians continue to try to repair them on essentially a daily basis. So the short answer to your question is, yes, there's a good possibility of that, but I wouldn't say it's a certainty. But the Ukrainians have massed significant amount of ground combat power. And we'll see how this plays out in the coming days and weeks.

INSKEEP: I want to think this through. We should just describe for a layman, Russia has a bigger army, but if Ukraine can get more forces in a local area, they can have an advantage there. Some wounded soldiers from the Ukrainian side talking to The Washington Post, though, think they don't have the advantage. They said they still had less artillery and technology than the Russians. Do you think that's correct?

MILLEY: Well, as an overall statement, that's true, in terms of a net assessment between the country of Russia and the country of Ukraine. But part of the skill of generalship in battle is to concentrate enough forces at the time and place of your choosing to achieve the desired effects. And that is what the Ukrainians are trying to do. So I think that it's possible that in certain areas where those soldiers were that - you know, wars, you get different perspectives on combat. So if you're talking to an individual soldier, especially one who was wounded, then the likelihood is they have a pretty grim outlook on the nature of that fight that they were in. As you go up to the brigades and the divisions and the corps and the armies, they may have a different view. My sense is that Ukraine has massed a good amount of combat power. How they use that will be the determining factor. Ukraine has fought extraordinarily well. Now, they've fought in the defense, and that's an important distinction. They're now fighting in the offense. Offensive combat, offensive maneuver is more complicated than the defense. And they're making a very deliberate level of progress.

INSKEEP: Let me ask about that difference...

MILLEY: Yeah.

INSKEEP: ...Because this war is the first one in decades that tests one relatively modern, well-equipped army against another relatively modern, well-equipped army. Is this war showing that in that situation, given the current weapons that are available, whoever is on the defensive is going to have the advantage, will be able to stop an offensive?

MILLEY: Well, historically, the defense has always been the stronger form of war - what you saw in the beginning of the war, beginning in 24 February, when the Russians attempted to conduct offensive operations with combined arms maneuver, and they were unsuccessful. They were not able to integrate their fighters and maneuver. They weren't able to achieve air superiority and a wide variety of other factors. Now the Ukrainians are on the offensive, and like I said, it remains to be seen what's going to happen, you know, in the next few weeks as - in terms of their ability to execute offensive combined arms maneuver. It's a very, very difficult task that the Ukrainians are undertaking.

INSKEEP: So far as you can tell, have economic sanctions yet had any meaningful effect on Russia's ability to sustain their side of the war?

MILLEY: Well, we said at the beginning - and this is going back, you know, six, seven months - as I recall, I believe that the leaders of Western Europe and the United States, those that - in the State Department and Department of Commerce and Treasury, etc., the ones that do things like sanctions - they said it would take a long time for those to take effect. And I'm doing this from memory, but I think they said something like six to nine months. So we're really at about the point in time when in the next few months, we should start seeing significant impacts of these sanctions as it relates to their military.

So as you know, there's two things. One is sanctions, and the other is export controls. Export controls could take up to almost a year to show significant effects on their military. And export controls involve things like semiconductors. So if the Russians can't get semiconductors, then their ability to produce precision munitions will be greatly diminished, which will have significant effect. And right now, for example, the Russian expenditure rates of conventional munitions - artillery - have been very high, and that's why you saw recent reports of the Russians going to North Korea to purchase munitions from North Korea.

INSKEEP: They're basically buying old Soviet things that they sold to the North Koreans long, long ago, right? They're repurchasing things.

MILLEY: That's exactly right. And they're having to buy it off of North Korea 'cause their industrial base is not producing them. So we'll see.

INSKEEP: Is the goal here simply not to lose until Russia runs out of steam?

MILLEY: With respect to Ukraine, the end state has been defined very clearly, which is a free and independent sovereign Ukraine at the end of the day. Now, what that means, what that looks like, exactly what the border looks like, and so on and so forth - those are for others to decide, not me. But the intent there is that Ukraine remains free, sovereign and independent and free of Russian occupation. So we'll see. The United States is in this for as long as it takes to ensure that that end state is achieved.

INSKEEP: General Milley, it's always a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much.

MILLEY: OK, Steve, thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Our co-host Steve Inskeep, talking with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley. Milley traveled to Ramstein Air Base in Germany yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.