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Secretary of State Blinken may be headed to Ukraine as counter-offensive continues

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The top U.S. diplomat may be headed to Kyiv. Ukrainian media are reporting that Secretary of State Antony Blinken is on his way there as Ukraine's counteroffensive continues to grind forward. Western military analysts say although it has taken months, Ukraine's army has fought past some of Russia's deadliest minefields and trenches. NPR's Brian Mann is in Kyiv. Hi there.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: First, what can you tell us about Secretary Blinken's visit?

MANN: Well, I can only say what Ukrainian media are reporting right now - that he is coming. The U.S. State Department isn't commenting. So if Blinken indeed arrives tomorrow, Ari, he's going to be here at a pretty sensitive moment. It's been a long, difficult summer. Most analysts acknowledge Ukraine just hasn't seen the kind of progress they hoped for.

SHAPIRO: And yet, as we mentioned, military analysts say Ukraine has broken through some of Russia's strongest defenses. What happened?

MANN: Yeah, so what the goal here really is, is to drive forward to the coast of the Sea of Azov. If Ukraine can do that, it would sever the territory that Russia's occupied - a crescent of land that includes much of eastern Ukraine and the Crimean peninsula. Moscow desperately needs to keep this territory as an uninterrupted supply route for its army. And so, yes, Ukraine is moving forward. They are gaining ground. But, you know, it's slow. Sometimes they're picking up just a few hundred meters a day in house-to-house, field-to-field fighting.

SHAPIRO: Why has this been so difficult for the Ukrainian military to advance?

MANN: By all accounts, Russia's military has done almost everything wrong in this war. You know, they've bungled supply lines. They've sent poorly trained, poorly equipped soldiers into battle. We even saw that brief mutiny back in June by forces with the Wagner mercenary group. But when it comes to these defensive lines, Russia got smart. They spent months preparing for this fight. David Petraeus, a retired U.S. Army general and former CIA chief, is actually here in Kyiv right now, and he spoke today about what Ukraine is up against.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAVID PETRAEUS: These miles-deep minefields are tank ditches, concertina wire, trench lines full of soldiers, drones overhead when you're trying to pick your way through the sappers, through these minefields that are bringing accurate Russian fire on top. So how do you react to that? And I think that the Ukrainian reaction has been truly admirable.

MANN: And that horror of that is what Ukraine's been pushing through, Ari. They won't disclose their losses, but clearly this has been a costly summer.

SHAPIRO: Is it possible to assess how morale is holding up in the Ukrainian army?

MANN: Ukraine's keeping a really tight lid on what's happening on the frontlines. The soldiers we've been able to talk to say they do remain confident Ukraine's going to win this fight. But Ukrainian officials appear concerned. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy just made a trip to visit some of the frontline combat brigades in the south and east, and he recorded a video while traveling on a train back from that tour.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY: (Non-English language spoken).

MANN: "It is very, very useful to hear from those who are going into battle directly," Zelenskyy said, "hearing what they say is lacking, what has to be changed." Everything the soldiers told me is going to get talked about by the high command, he promised. And also, you know, Zelenskyy just sacked Ukraine's defense minister. That's the first major shakeup we've seen since Russia's invasion began. And so, you know, Zelenskyy is saying the defense ministry needs fresh ideas.

SHAPIRO: And what about Russian troops - any idea what they're experiencing?

MANN: By all accounts, they're in rough shape. Britain's defense ministry released an analysis on Sunday pointing out Russia is trying to recruit men from neighboring countries, places like Armenia and Kazakhstan. So both sides clearly suffering big losses this summer, and what's coming next, Ari, is autumn rains. They're going to hit in the next few weeks. It's going to turn this battlefield to mud. That'll slow things down even more.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Brian Mann in Kyiv. Thanks a lot.

MANN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) 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.

Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.