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U.S. and allies pledge more heavy weapons for Ukraine

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The U.S. and other NATO countries say they're sending what looks to be the largest package yet of heavy weapons to Ukraine. This announcement sends a clear signal that Ukraine's war with Russia may escalate in the months ahead. NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre joins us. Greg, thanks so much for being with us.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: My pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: The U.S. and its allies have been sending a lot of weapons to Ukraine through the war. Why is this one different?

MYRE: Well, let's start with the sheer size. This U.S. package of $2.5 billion is the largest single one aside from one that was announced just two weeks ago for $3 billion. In addition, the U.S. and its partners are focused on two key areas for Ukraine. One is air defenses, which are needed to guard against these ongoing Russian missiles. And then, there are hundreds of armored vehicles that will be going to Ukraine, which would be crucial for any Ukrainian offensive. Put all this together, and it certainly points towards heavy fighting ahead.

SIMON: Ukraine is going to get a lot of weapons, but not the tanks that they so badly want. How significant is that?

MYRE: It is significant. Ukraine says these tanks would be very valuable in ground combat. They'd like to have 200, maybe 300 of them. But the U.S. and Germany are not sending tanks, their tanks, which are considered the best in the world. The Pentagon argument is that it has put together a coordinated, good overall weapons package that Ukraine can use in the very near term. They say the tanks, because of training and maintenance issues, would not be a good fit. We should also note Ukraine does have some old Soviet-era tanks. And Britain just announced this week it will send about a dozen of its tanks. Ukraine would just like more and better tanks.

SIMON: Greg, what will the fighting ahead look like?

MYRE: So right now, Scott, there's really two main fronts. First is the ground combat in the East, the Donbass region, and in particular around this town of Bakhmut. It's been contested for months and is still being heavily fought over. The second, of course, is the ongoing Russian airstrikes on the cities trying to knock out the power supplies. So both Ukraine and Russia are believed to be planning offensives. And for Ukraine, Crimea is considered the most critical area. And I spoke about this with retired Army Gen. Ben Hodges. He used to command the U.S. Army in Europe and worked closely with Ukrainians.

BEN HODGES: Crimea itself is the decisive terrain. That's the endgame, is the liberation of Crimea. As long as Russia occupies Crimea, Ukraine will never be safe or secure and never be able to rebuild its economy.

MYRE: Now, he stresses that the Russians are dug in there. They took Ukraine back when they first invaded in 2014. But Crimea is this peninsula that's sitting there out on its own. If the Ukrainians can cut off Russia's supply lines to Crimea, this would leave that territory very isolated and vulnerable.

SIMON: And, Greg, what do we know about Russia receiving weapons from North Korea?

MYRE: Yeah, the White House said that Russia sent trains to North Korea back in November. These trains picked up weapons and have sent them all the way to Ukraine. They're being used by the Wagner Group. This is the Russian mercenary force that's deeply involved in the current fighting in Eastern Ukraine. And as we approach the one-year mark of the war, we should note this contrast. We've heard a lot of talk about Western support for Ukraine possibly faltering, yet we're seeing a massive new package of weapons headed there. Conversely, Russia has turned to North Korea for weapons that are going on trains, thousands of miles by rail, and they're being given to a mercenary group that relies on convicts who have been freed from prison to fight for Russia.

SIMON: NPR's Greg Myre, thanks so much.

MYRE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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.