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Can Ukraine continue its fight against Russia with dwindling U.S. support?


Ukraine's Volodymyr Zelenskyy arrives in Washington at a critical moment for his country. After nearly two years of war and tens of billions of dollars in American military aid, the fight with Russia is at a kind of stalemate, and congressional support is eroding. Behind closed doors today, both Republican and Democratic lawmakers were asking the Biden administration - what are the near-term goals? And also, how does this war end? To parse this, we are joined by NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Hey, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: You know, it seemed like Ukraine's ability to outmaneuver and outthink Russia for the first months, year, so on, of this war - it dazzled so much of the world because it was very much a David-and-Goliath scenario, and now we appear to be at a different point. Where are we in this war?

BOWMAN: Well, you know, some people say it's an inflection point, and I think that's probably right. Now, Ukraine has taken back about 50% of the territory lost to the Russians - obviously a plus. But the - it has not achieved its goal of cutting off this so-called Russian land bridge to the south, and that would prevent Russia from supplying its troops in the south. That has not happened.

So privately, military officials are saying to me, listen, we're at a stalemate right now, and that has led to a loss of support on Capitol Hill. Tell me how this ends. What can we achieve? They've spent tens of billions of dollars helping Ukraine, so where are we at this point? So...

KELLY: And that's the word Pentagon officials are using when they talk to you privately - stalemate?

BOWMAN: Yeah. Privately, they'll talk stalemate. But politically, you know, everyone's on board, saying, we have to help Ukraine. We have to stop Putin. If we don't stop Putin now, he may threaten NATO countries. So that's kind of where we are politically.

KELLY: How long before the assistance runs out?

BOWMAN: Well, right now, there's about $4.8 billion left in American aid to Ukraine. And the plan is to kind of dole that out - parse it out over time, maybe weeks, maybe months, until a supplemental bill can be approved, which would have roughly $47 billion for Ukraine. But, again, that's not going to happen this week or next in Congress. You're clearly looking at next year for a vote.

KELLY: Talk one more moment about what exactly that money is buying - like, the specifics of what American dollars are funding for Ukraine.

BOWMAN: Well, a lot of it is weaponry - everything from Patriot missile systems to demining equipment again, artillery shells, tanks, cold-weather gear - pretty much everything - also paying the salaries of some Ukrainian folks, police and first responders, so pretty much everything. And some of that money is also used to support U.S. troops in Europe, some of whom are training Ukrainian forces. So it's a lot of money. It's tens of billions of dollars, so it's pretty much everything.

KELLY: Yeah. You mentioned cold-weather gear. I will point out the obvious - it's winter. Is that contributing to the sense of urgency that President Zelenskyy is trying to convey on this trip to Washington?

BOWMAN: Absolutely. They need defensive missiles because Russia is going to spend the winter trying to take out energy infrastructure to freeze Ukrainian civilians. So they desperately need defensive missiles to prevent that from happening - prevent Russian missiles and drones from attacking that key infrastructure.

KELLY: I want to circle back to the conversations you are having with officials at the Pentagon and how they view this and what kind of conversations they are having with their counterparts in Ukraine.

BOWMAN: Well, initially, this big spring offensive we've been talking about - they want them to concentrate all their combat power pushing south to break, again, that land bridge - to get to the Sea of Azov. The Ukrainians didn't do that. They sent some of their troops to the east to push the Russians back. They sent some to the south. And the Americans said they weren't aggressive enough at pushing south. And the Ukrainians said, listen, we have all these minefields we have to get through. And the Americans say, well, we've given you demining equipment. You should be able to do it. But they didn't have the equipment that's really needed - that the Americans would use in a minefield like that. First, you use aircraft to attack enemy forces. Then you bring in huge numbers of tanks and mortars to push back - to keep those an enemy forces down so - while you can clear the mines. The Ukrainians didn't have all of that, so they were kind of stuck trying to get rid of these mines to move forward. And then the Russians had all these defensive trenches - huge numbers of them, very sophisticated - that they just had a hard time getting through. Hence, we're at a kind of a stalemate.

KELLY: Oh. Can this war be won? Can Russia be defeated militarily in Ukraine?

BOWMAN: No. And Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, you know, who retired, General Mark Milley - he said earlier this year neither side can win.

KELLY: I remember, yeah.

BOWMAN: Russia can't take the whole country over, and Ukraine can't kick out every Russian soldier. So the only way this is really going to end is if Putin decides, I've had enough. I'm pulling my troops out. No one thinks that it's possible.

KELLY: That is NPR's Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman, talking about the future of a war that feels very uncertain. Thank you, Tom.

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

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.