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What does Ukraine need to continue its fight against Russia?

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Vice President Kamala Harris is in Poland meeting with that country's president. This morning, she addressed the hospital attack.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VICE PRESIDENT KAMALA HARRIS: We have been witnessing for weeks atrocities of unimaginable proportion - a maternity hospital, a children's hospital, where we have witnessed pregnant women who were there for care for one reason being taken out because they required care because of an act of violence - unprovoked, unjustified.

FADEL: One of the big questions has been what further support the U.S. and Poland will provide Ukraine and whether fighter jets would be part of that. NPR's Tom Bowman covers the Pentagon and joins me now. Good morning, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: So, Tom, you've spoken this week with a highly placed Ukrainian defense official. What is Ukraine saying are its greatest military needs?

BOWMAN: Well, they say they need both warplanes and sophisticated air defense systems. We learned earlier this week about an offer from Poland to deliver Russian-made MiG fighter jets. But there was this hiccup, Leila, because the U.S. thought Poland would deliver the warplanes directly to Ukraine. Poland wanted to send the planes to Germany and have the U.S. send them in. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby pretty much shut it down as a nonstarter. Kirby said the U.S. believes they wouldn't add significantly to Ukraine's defenses and that a transfer such as that would be seen as both high-risk and escalatory, meaning it could risk a conflict between NATO and Russia.

Now, as far as air defenses, the U.S. may send mobile air defense systems to Ukraine to replace those destroyed by Russia. Other NATO countries also use the same kinds of systems, so there's a hope of a fairly quick transfer. But as President Zelenskyy said, the hope for a no-fly zone - that will never happen because that means you're going to war.

FADEL: But, Tom, Vladimir Putin is using long-range missiles, half of them back in Russia, to hit civilian targets like schools and churches, even that children's hospital. People here are resolved to fight, but also there's a sense of desperation. Will these air defense systems really help?

BOWMAN: Well, they'll help somewhat. But the Russians are clearly frustrated in resorting to even greater missile and artillery barrages - as you say, some from the Russian mainland. And it's meant to break the will of both the government and the Ukrainian people.

And, of course, many Americans are asking, why can't the U.S. get more involved, stop this slaughter? You know, Leila, there's a U.N. commitment from its 2005 World Summit and endorsed by all member states, and it's called Responsibility to Protect, where member states can go in militarily and protect innocents from, you know, genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing. It was used in Libya back in 2011, when U.S. and NATO warplanes went in to prevent Moammar Gadhafi from killing civilians.

The question is, will the U.S. and NATO use it against a nuclear power, Russia? The answer - probably not, even if civilian deaths multiply in the coming days and weeks. We're likely going to see a lot more attacks like the one Eric was just talking about.

FADEL: I spoke to a fighter here who said they just can't fight missiles with rifles. Which would be more valuable to Ukraine, more fighter jets or missile defense systems?

BOWMAN: Well, probably more missile defense systems. It would slow the Russian assault down a bit. But people I talk with at the Pentagon, Capitol Hill and elsewhere believe Russia will overwhelm Ukrainian defenses. One put it to me - he said total war.

FADEL: Tom, we know Ukrainians, both military personnel and civilians, are fighting the Russians, and there are reports of foreign fighters arriving to join both sides. We've heard here about Americans joining both through official channels and some just showing up in Ukraine. We actually met a young man, a former Marine from Minnesota, who said he came here because he wanted to fight, felt alienated at home and moved by the killing of civilians, and he's joining a local battalion. We also met a young Swedish man, a chef with basic military training, who's here to fight. What do we know about who's showing up in Ukraine?

BOWMAN: Well, as you just pointed out, they appear to be coming from Europe and the U.S. On the door of the Ukrainian Embassy in Washington, a sign says, join the army, with a bar code beneath it. And I spoke with a Ukrainian defense official who said thousands have reached out. Most of them are rejected for, you know, a variety of reasons - a lack of experience, criminal record, psychological problems. And then they interview these folks over Zoom and by phone. And he said about 100 have passed scrutiny. Now, they can travel to Poland at their own expense, meet a Ukrainian official at the border and sign a contract to join the army. But again, Leila, the numbers appear to be pretty small.

FADEL: NPR's Tom Bowman. Thank you so much for your reporting.

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