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Ukraine played a game of misdirection and caught Russian forces off guard

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

We have a clearer idea today of just how Ukraine seized back so much of its own territory.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It seems Ukraine used a head fake. Last week, much public attention focused on a Ukrainian drive to the south. U.S. General Mark Milley discussed it on NPR's MORNING EDITION.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MARK MILLEY: 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.

INSKEEP: Except it turns out the Ukrainians were concentrating their forces somewhere else and struck by surprise in the east.

MARTINEZ: NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre is with us. Greg, this is exactly how it works in football. A quarterback will pump fake to the right, get the defense to bite and then throw left. How did it work on the battlefield?

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Well, that's a pretty good analogy, A. Ukraine talked for weeks about this offensive in the south, and it did seem strange to be giving away the game plan. But it did convince the Russians, and they moved some of their best troops from the east to the south to reinforce positions there. But, of course, this left the Russians thinned out in the east, and that's exactly where Ukraine struck. Dara Massicot is with the RAND Corporation, and she says Russia left itself very vulnerable.

DARA MASSICOT: I wasn't surprised at the cascading effects of poor morale on the Russian side. The rumors that the Ukrainians are attacking then spreads down the line, and people give up their positions, they give up their ammunition, they leave behind their equipment. It turns very rapidly into this panicked retreat, which is really what we saw this weekend.

MARTINEZ: So, Greg, how much territory have they now taken?

MYRE: You know, it's pretty hard to keep up because it's moving so fast. Ukraine isn't providing many details, and reporters have been restricted from the front lines. But President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his Monday night address that Ukraine has now taken over 2,000 square miles this month. So now Ukraine faces a tough decision. If it keeps pressing ahead, it could risk overextending its own forces. But if it doesn't keep pressing, this may allow the Russians a chance to regroup.

MARTINEZ: Now, the U.S. has sent more than $13 1/2 billion in security aid to Ukraine. How much can we connect the dots here?

MYRE: Well, this huge amount of aid and weapons and intelligence sharing has certainly allowed the Ukrainians to do things they just weren't in position to do at the start of the war, like this offensive. But a senior U.S. military official cited the American role as just one of several factors contributing to Ukraine's success. He says since the beginning of the war, Russia has overestimated its own military. It has underestimated Ukraine, and it never expected Ukraine would get this level of support from the U.S. and the West. The official says Russia has struggled with morale, logistics, the ability to sustain operations. And over time, this can culminate in the kind of breakdown that we've just seen.

MARTINEZ: This Ukrainian offensive has really reshaped the battlefield to some degree. Is it also maybe reshaping the broader conversation about the war in the West?

MYRE: Yeah. You know, a big part of the Western debate, and particularly in Europe, has centered on whether Ukraine could actually take back land that Russia had captured. If Ukraine couldn't reverse the Russian gains or if there was a stalemate, shouldn't there then be talks on ending the war, even if this means painful compromises? But Ukraine has now shown decisively that it can recapture territory from Russia. So I think we're likely to hear more about what sort of weapons Ukraine needs to keep its offensive going and whether Russia's military is capable of regrouping after a major setback.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Greg Myre. Greg, thanks a lot.

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

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
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.