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What Russia's latest military offensive means for Ukraine


Russia's opened up a new front in its war in Ukraine. Troops have pushed into the northeast region of Kharkiv, home to Ukraine's second largest city. Vladimir Putin says he wants to carve out a buffer zone in the border region. Ukraine's top commander warns of, quote, "heavy battles to come." Phillips O'Brien is a professor of strategic studies at St Andrews University in Scotland. Professor O'Brien, thanks for being with us.

PHILLIPS O'BRIEN: Glad to be here.

SIMON: What's the significance you see in this new Russian offensive?

O'BRIEN: Well, I mean, it's certainly not enough to take Kharkiv, so I think we have to put this in perspective. This is far too small a force to take Kharkiv. They've moved just actually a little bit over the border. I mean, in this war, movement is very, very small. And they've moved maybe 5 miles over the border, 6 miles at most, and they've sort of carved out two small bulges, which haven't moved much in the last three days either. So they had a - their period of most advance was at the opening, which - so it's last week - for the first few days.

The question that we now have are - what is the purpose? I think had the Russians gone farther, they wouldn't say it's going to be a buffer. They are now saying it's going to be a buffer, and that might be a sign that, in fact, they're not going to pour a lot of - more troops in, and you'll see the line stabilize around there the way it stabilized in other parts of the line.

But it's still early days. And the big thing is the Russians have to decide how much they want to send. Do they want to try and make this the opening of a major offensive to try and take Kharkiv itself? - in which case they would need many more troops than they have now. Or are they just literally going to take these two small bulges?

SIMON: Was the delay in the U.S. sending weapons and ammunition to the front lines for Ukraine a factor in the advances that Russia's able to - been able to make?

O'BRIEN: Oh, yeah. U.S. policy has had a massive difference in the last few months, that - Ukraine was never expecting to be cut off by the United States, and the United States cut it off on January 1. And Ukraine was forced to fight for 4 1/2 months with nothing from the U.S., basically, for almost four months with basically nothing, and that meant that their losses were higher, much higher than they thought they were going to be. They were able to do less damage to the Russians than they would have expected, and they lost some ground. So their army is in considerably worse shape than it would have been had the U.S. given it aid, and the Russians have had fewer losses. So it has played a significant role in making the war develop the way it has in the four months, not just in Kharkiv, but everywhere.

The other thing is - that has made a big difference is the U.S. won't let Ukraine fire into Russia with U.S.-made weapons, and that means the Russians were basically able to prepare this attack. The Ukrainians knew it was coming, but they couldn't do anything about it 'cause they couldn't actually fire at the Russian troops until they went into action.

So the United States has given the Russians a huge advantage by basically saying, you have a sanctuary in Russia. You can attack Ukraine, but Ukraine can't attack you. And so in those two ways, American policy has had a huge impact on what we're seeing.

SIMON: I mean, you're suggesting that there's a cost for American support.

O'BRIEN: There is. The United States has basically - well, the United States has had two costs. One, they will only give, until recently, Ukraine aid a very limited range. They've only in the last few weeks given the ATACMS, which are the long-range artillery. So they were making Ukraine fight a very basic war with U.S. aid, war of - sort of the war of the battle lines. And the second thing is the U.S. has said you cannot use any U.S. weapons to attack into Russia, even if Russia is attacking you from Russia. So the United States has given quite a lot of strings attached to the war. In fact, what you might say is the United States is arming Ukraine not to lose. They are certainly not arming Ukraine to win.

SIMON: And that brings us to this in the minute we have left. Earlier this week, Estonia raised the idea - and not for the first time - of sending NATO troops to Ukraine.

O'BRIEN: Yeah.

SIMON: Would this be a direct confrontation between Russia and the West? Do you see this as more likely now?

O'BRIEN: First of all, they wouldn't be troops from NATO. They would be countries that are in NATO. So it wouldn't be...

SIMON: Well...

O'BRIEN: ...A NATO mission in the sense...


O'BRIEN: ...That NATO would say, we're sending, you know, NATO in. It would be Estonia sending troops, primarily European troops.

SIMON: I'm just guessing that's not how Vladimir Putin will see it, but please, go ahead.

O'BRIEN: No, he wouldn't. But I - he would - I mean, Putin doesn't want a conflict with NATO. The last thing he wants is a war with NATO. And in fact, he's bent over backwards not to antagonize NATO in this war. So I can't believe he would do anything to attack European troops. By the way, that is the natural progression of - that is the progression. And that would have happened soon had the United States not finally approved aid. It probably will happen at some point in the next six months.

SIMON: Phillips O'Brien of St Andrews University. Thanks very much for being with us again, Professor.

O'BRIEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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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.