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The state of the war: a month after Russia tried to claim an easy victory


One month into the war in Ukraine, we have an assessment. The war looks very different than people expected. Russian invaders were expected to seize the capital quickly. Instead, Russia's military reputation is shattered, though Russian artillery and missiles have destroyed many buildings and many lives. That is the situation as President Biden meets NATO leaders in Europe this week. Our assessment of the war comes from there and from here. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman covers the U.S. military. NPR's Tim Mak has covered the war since he arrived in Kyiv last month on one of the last commercial flights into the country.

Tim, let's start with you in Ukraine. How has the country changed in this past month?

TIM MAK, BYLINE: The first thing that comes to mind is what has happened with civilians. Now, the U.N. has said that 3.6 million people have left Ukraine to escape the war, and millions more have had to leave their homes. But something that happens when you have a number that large is that it can obscure the reality on the ground, that for every single one of those people, there were dreams and aspirations that they had for the place they lived, and these are aspirations that are now eliminated or at the very least postponed. For many of them, it's been stressful trips on crowded train cars with crying toddlers and hours of waiting in the dark, wondering what's going to happen next. And over the past month, I've seen blank stares and anxiety of fleeing women and children. I've seen the care that many Ukrainians have for their pets, the dogs and cats and even rabbits that residents of Kyiv and other parts of Ukraine have taken with them as they travel across Ukraine to escape to safety. And I've seen the hope, despite the war, and the happiness that comes when loved ones are still together.

INSKEEP: Tim, stay with us. I'm going to bring Tom Bowman into the conversation. And, Tom, didn't Pentagon officials expect a different war than the one that has evolved?

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: There was an expectation - get this, Steve - that the Russians could take Kyiv in as little as two days and maybe take the entire country in about two weeks. So what's surprising is just how bad the Russians are across the board. They're having problems with coordinating their aircraft, armor and troops into one powerful fist. They lack leadership, supplies even - both food and fuel. They've not gained any of their objectives after a month. They've not taken Kyiv. And now small Ukrainian forces are actually pushing back the Russians in the suburbs northwest of Kyiv. And for at least a week or not - more, the Russians have been stuck eight miles outside of Kyiv to the northwest, 18 miles to the east. And they've not moved, again, in quite some time.

The other big surprise is how hard the Ukrainians are fighting in these small units and making particularly a very good use of anti-tank weapons, like around Kyiv, and also using anti-aircraft weapons to shoot down Russian helicopters and jets. Steve, the assumption was Ukrainians would mount a stiff counterinsurgency after a quick Russian victory. Instead, we're seeing the Ukrainians fight like terriers right off the bat and denying the Russians pretty much everything.

INSKEEP: Tim, what are you hearing from the troops who are fighting that battle on the Ukrainian side?

MAK: I think what I've been hearing about is a lot of pride in outperforming the world's expectations. I'm told over and over again by Ukrainians that they thought the prospect of an all-out war was overhyped. They never thought it would actually happen. And so in the first days of the war, soldiers all across the country were hastily putting together fighting positions and checkpoints. They had a lot of nervous men with guns lining the road without much training and poor trigger discipline.

BOWMAN: You know, I was talking to a Ukrainian general who raised a very good point. He said, you people - meaning the U.S. and NATO - have been fighting a counterinsurgency for 20 years. We've actually been fighting a conventional war against the Russians in the Donbas area. He said every general has experience fighting the Russians with tanks and armor and aircraft and artillery. So I think that's why you're seeing the Ukrainians do so well. And I think that's what the Pentagon failed to see, was these were hardened troops fighting the Russians for many years in the eastern part of their country.

INSKEEP: Tim Mak, have the Ukrainians then been able to take that skill and bring it up to scale, become more and more skilled as they've spent the past month fighting the Russians on a large scale?

MAK: I think that what's really happened is that there have been these success stories that Tom's been talking about that have really proliferated, and so you do see an evolution of the attitude of regular troops, that these checkpoints and the soldiers that are at them, they become a little bit more relaxed, especially away from the front lines, you know, whereas in the first days of the war, I - myself, you know, I'm a foreign journalist - I would have been regularly confronted, asked for my passport. And that just hasn't happened nearly as much over the past week. And, you know, in some of these military checkpoints, I'm seeing smiles and jokes. We even saw an impromptu barbecue at a checkpoint outside Odesa earlier this week.

INSKEEP: Tom Bowman, I want to ask about the next couple of weeks. It's speculated that perhaps Russian forces are running low on ammunition, running low on missiles, running low on food, running low on supplies.

BOWMAN: Right. And some military analysts are saying this could be over for the Russians in 10 days or so if they don't get resupplies or get more troops in. People I talk with say, listen; don't count the Russians out just yet. They still have a lot of combat power, especially missiles and artillery that you're seeing being used not only in Kyiv but also this scorched-earth policy, especially in the south around Mariupol. Now, the Russians could possibly break out and move closer to Kyiv and then start hammering the city even more. They're trying to box in Ukrainian forces in the east, around the Donbas area. And that's where roughly half the Ukrainian army is located. But again, you know, military intelligence officials say the Russians are expected to bring in Russian replacement troops from either the Russian mainland or outside the country from maybe places like Georgia or maybe Syria. But again, the Russians are not doing well at all. And they may, in the end, just go to this scorched-earth policy, just hammer and hammer the cities into, basically, oblivion.

INSKEEP: Tim Mak, what's the human cost of that?

MAK: Right now we're hearing a lot of the stories of the war from the eyes of civilians who are fleeing west into safer areas. And earlier this week, I spoke to a man named Arytom (ph). He had been in Donbas, eastern Ukraine, a few years ago as a sniper. He talked about holding an 18-year-old friend as he died. He recounted his friend was asking if he was going to be OK. I think a lot more of these stories will start to filter out to the public soon. From a human perspective, the situation is improving for Ukrainians logistically. As we traveled west, I saw truck after truck after truck carrying fuel and food eastwards and in Kyiv and east in the country. And I think we'll see some continuing resilience of Ukrainian citizens who are living under constant threat of bombardment everywhere across the country.

INSKEEP: NPR's Tim Mak is finishing a month of reporting in Ukraine. Tim, thanks for all your work. Really appreciate it.

MAK: Thank you.

INSKEEP: And we were also joined by NPR's Tom Bowman, who has covered the past month of war from the Pentagon. Tom, thanks to you.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.
Tim Mak is NPR's Washington Investigative Correspondent, focused on political enterprise journalism.