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Russia's latest wave of missile strikes across Ukraine reflect its strategy

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

We're going to continue discussing Russia's escalations in Ukraine and the growing pressure on Western allies to do more to help Ukraine defend itself. With us is U.S. Air Force Lieutenant General David Deptula. Now retired from the service, he is dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies in Washington, D.C. Welcome to the program, General.

DAVID DEPTULA: Well, thanks, Leila. Good to be here.

FADEL: So I want to start with just how dangerous this moment is, this new phase of Russia's war in Ukraine.

DEPTULA: Well, it is dangerous, but it's not unexpected. And there are a variety of aspects to your question. But let me mention a few that I think are key. First, Putin's expectation that his invasion of Ukraine would result in its rapid collapse, as everyone knows by now, proved spectacularly wrong. Almost everything about that initial Russian invasion collapsed. Second, when he pulled his forces out of the north and regrouped, because of the Russian military's poor performance and a Ukrainian military motivated by Putin's existential threat, supplied with weapons and critical intelligence by the West, Russia's military really struggled...

FADEL: Right.

DEPTULA: ...Under the Ukrainian counteroffensive. Third, that counteroffensive going as well as it did shocked the Russians and became a turning point in the war. It's what caused Putin to take the step of mobilization. And as you know, that's not going well. And while the war had already turned Putin into a political pariah externally, Russia's military failures are now testing Putin's domestic strength.

FADEL: Right.

DEPTULA: Therefore, Putin's trying to find a means to garner support domestically by demonstrating that he's still strong, by making nuclear threats and striking with air and missile attacks across Ukraine. So his hope is that Ukraine will break under the pain of this bombardment, but he seems unable to understand the unbreakable will of the Ukrainians.

FADEL: But he's also shown no sign of backing down, that he is in this war. And so will these strikes become a feature of Russia's strategy at this point?

DEPTULA: Well, he's got some problems there because due to the intense use of his weapons to date, he's running low on munitions stocks, not to mention the personnel that he needs to continue to feed the fight. It's important for your audience to know that Russia has lost more of its military personnel in eight months in Ukraine than it did in over a decade in Afghanistan. So, yeah, he has the potential to continue. I mean, he's not out yet. And he's going to do - as I mentioned, he's going to take actions to try to - to show that he is strong, and he's standing up to those who are edging him on inside the country. But there's the reality of supplies, of munitions and aircraft to be able to do this.

FADEL: You describe a man trying to show strength and possibly be - in a desperate moment. And a desperate leader like that can be dangerous. He's made nuclear threats. And how serious do you take those? And could what the U.S. and NATO do next provoke Putin to follow through?

DEPTULA: Well, it's a great question, Leila. First, he does have to be taken seriously, but it's also important to understand that the risk of escalation is ever present, regardless of what actions the West takes to support Ukraine. Putin's already shown that he'll manufacture a pretext when his adversaries are too smart to give him one.

I like to remind people that during the Vietnam War, the Russians supplied North Vietnam with 100% of their fighter aircraft, all of their surface-to-air missile systems, all of their tanks, and they were even on the ground. Both Russia and the U.S. had nuclear weapons at that time, and that didn't affect the conventional conflicts, so why should it today? His nuclear saber-rattling can increase risks, but it really can't offer Russia any edge in its confrontation. How does one create more damage than what's been created in Mariupol?

FADEL: You know, just quickly before we let you go, at this phase of the war, could the U.S. and NATO be drawn into doing more than providing weapons and defense systems?

DEPTULA: If you mean actual use of NATO and U.S. forces, I think it's important that we don't engage in that level of support. You know, I tell you what - getting weapons that matter to the Ukrainians is critical to both their survival and success.

FADEL: Retired U.S. Air Force Lieutenant General David Deptula, now dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies in Washington, D.C., thank you.

DEPTULA: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.