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Pentagon says Russia is still laying the groundwork for offensive in eastern Ukraine

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Russian rockets and artillery shells have been pounding multiple Ukrainian cities across hundreds of miles of the country. This as Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, said the dreaded Russian assault on the east has begun. Russia's defense minister said its forces carried out over 1,200 strikes on military targets throughout Ukraine overnight. And Russian forces have seized the city of Cremona in the Luhansk region. That city, southeast of the capital, has a population of just over 18,000. The governor of Luhansk has implored citizens to leave before it's too late. For more, we're joined by NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Hi, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Leila.

FADEL: So Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy thinks this is the start of the big Russian offensive. Is it?

BOWMAN: Well, you're right. That's what President Zelenskyy is saying, that the offensive has begun in the east. But others aren't willing to be that definitive. The Pentagon says Russia is still conducting what they call a shaping operation, laying the groundwork for the offensive by sending in more battalions and artillery, firing more bombs and missiles, as we just heard. Now, a large portion of the Ukrainian army is there in the east. So they're dug in. And they'll be soon getting a lot more heavy weaponry from the U.S. and NATO, artillery, helicopters, drones and armored vehicles. That's all moving toward Ukraine. And it has to arrive fast to help them. The Russians, by the way, their strategy would be to try to box in Ukrainian forces. But do they have enough combat power to do that, enough competence. That's the big question in the coming weeks.

FADEL: Enough competence - I mean, that's a big question because early on, many expected Russia's army to fare much better than it has. It's failed to capture the capital. And despite besieging, bombarding and starving the strategic port city of Mariupol in the southeast, Russian forces still haven't taken the area. What's the latest there?

BOWMAN: Well, you know, once again, as you say, we've seen all over Ukraine just bungling by Russian forces and their commanders there - poorly trained troops, they didn't have enough precision-guided munitions. And a big thing was they failed to attack Mariupol from multiple locations at once, which could have shaken up the defenders. And that's kind of key when you're doing urban warfare. John Spencer is a retired Army officer who focuses on urban warfare. He says a big part of all of this is the fighting spirit of the Ukrainians. Let's listen.

JOHN SPENCER: It's really hard to get a committed and dedicated urban defender out. We have the Ukrainians, who have the will to fight, which the Russians don't.

BOWMAN: And that's important. Urban warfare favors the committed defenders. They - Leila, they know the streets and the buildings, the tunnels that they can use to pop up and shoot. And the more the Russians destroyed buildings in Mariupol, they created rubble, which makes it hard for their armored vehicles to move. And it also creates, interestingly, fortifications for the Ukrainians. Finally, you know, the Russians don't train for urban warfare like the U.S. military, which has these mock cities and villages at its training sites to practice urban warfare. I've been visiting these sites for many years. The Russians just don't do that.

FADEL: So the battle for Mariupol, if you could just remind us why it's so important, why it's so strategic for the Russian war in Ukraine. I mean, they've deployed a lot of troops there.

BOWMAN: No, they have. It's a key port for, you know, one of the reasons. And also, it helps the Russians build a land bridge to Crimea, which they grabbed in 2014, a land bridge from Russia right to Crimea. Now, the Russians sent in 12 battalion tactical groups, each of which number from 800 to 1,000 soldiers, so as many as 12,000 troops. Once Mariupol falls, the Pentagon says most of those troops will head north into the Donbas region for that major battle ahead. But another analyst I spoke with, Fred Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute, says, hey, listen; don't just look at the numbers. Many of these battalions are really weak because of casualties, lost and damage equipment. And again, they're poorly trained conscript forces, who will face a battle-hardened Ukrainian army. Now, if Russia takes Mariupol, it still faces fighting in cities all over the north and east and the south. The Ukrainians are proving to be very, very resilient.

FADEL: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Thank you, Tom.

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

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.