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Ukraine's long-awaited spring counteroffensive against Russia is on hold

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Ukraine's long-awaited spring counteroffensive against Russia is on hold. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy says they're still waiting for more Western weapons to arrive. He spoke to the network of the European Broadcasting Union through an interpreter.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY: (Through interpreter) We can advance with what we've got, and I think we can be successful. But we will lose a lot of people. I think that is unacceptable. We need to wait. We need a bit more time.

FADEL: Joining me now is Ben Hodges, the former commanding general of the U.S. Army in Europe. He's on the line via Skype.

Welcome.

BEN HODGES: Hey. Thank you, Leila.

FADEL: So what do you make of this delay? Does it hurt the chances of this counterattack being successful?

HODGES: Actually, I would not characterize it as a delay. I think the idea that this was a spring offensive is something that was created by us, you know, the bubble outside of the actual Ukrainian general staff. I don't believe they ever put a specific date or season on it. There's three conditions that they'll have to meet before they tell President Zelenskyy they're ready to go. Number one, are their own forces strong enough, ready enough, trained enough to be successful? The second condition is, are Russian forces degraded enough, disrupted enough for the Ukrainian attack to be successful? And then the third condition, I think, is tied to the ground. Is it dry enough to enable - or support the movement of hundreds of armored vehicles? Those are the three conditions that I think they'll want to meet before they tell the president they're ready to go.

FADEL: You know, there have been, as you mentioned, a lot of expectations around this planned offensive from allies who are funneling a lot of weaponry - costly weaponry into the country. And Ukrainian officials were tempering those expectations. Ukraine's defense minister said to The Washington Post, most people are waiting for something huge, and they may be disappointed. What do you expect from this offensive? What needs to happen?

HODGES: Yeah. Well, I think, first of all, the Ukrainian general staff has impressed me with how skilled and disciplined they are. They do a great job of protecting information. We know more about the Russians than we do about the Ukrainian forces, as it should be. I should not know, as an old retired guy, what their plans are. I actually expect, however, that they will be quite successful. They've been training hard. The West has provided a lot of very good equipment, but also, the Ukrainians have worked hard to build up several armored brigades that will be used to penetrate these long, linear Russian defenses. That's why the fighting at Bakhmut was so important, because they were able to keep their armored forces out of there and still allow the Russians to bleed themself there. That sort of sacrifice is necessary to ensure a very successful attack when it does start.

FADEL: Well, it sounds like you think a delay is a delay - if it's needed for a more successful operation, then it's needed. But if this counterattack, when it does happen, doesn't end in significant gains with Ukrainians getting back a lot of territory, do the Ukrainians risk losing some of the Western support vis-a-vis weapons and training as Europe and the U.S. assess how much they can continue to give?

HODGES: Well, this is an important point, and I think there will be some concern about that. I was happy to hear that the president yesterday or the day before said, you know, American support is not tied to whether or not this offensive is going to achieve some sort of great success. I mean, that would give light to the reasons that we're doing this to begin with. This is about helping stop Russia from its aggression, holding them accountable for the terrible war crimes, the violations of sovereignty, violations of international law. So if we're serious about those reasons for doing this - and also, of course, the Chinese are watching to see if we're really serious about this - then I don't think our support is tied directly to whether or not the attack is a smashing success.

FADEL: Ben Hodges is a retired U.S Army lieutenant general. He joined us via Skype.

Thank you so much for your time.

HODGES: Thanks for the privilege. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.