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Ukrainian forces in Mariupol are refusing to surrender to Russian forces

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Russia's foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, says Moscow has started another phase of its assault on Ukraine. The Defense Ministry in Moscow says missiles and artillery have struck over a thousand military targets in eastern Ukraine. Civilians have not been spared. And Russia continues its bombardment of the strategic port city of Mariupol, where many fear troops will soon raze the city. In Washington, the Biden administration is expected to send more military aid on top of the $800 million package announced last week. Ben Hodges is the former commanding general of the U.S. Army in Europe. He is now with the Center for European Policy Analysis, and I spoke with him this morning while he was on a visit to Istanbul, Turkey.

Now, it looks like Russia is trying to split Ukraine - take its east, separate it from its center and west - and it's focused a lot on port cities in the Azov Sea. The southern port city of Mariupol is in ruins - water, electricity is out and accounts from inside are devastating. But Ukrainian forces are refusing to surrender, even with an ultimatum from Russia, where Russia says surrender or face elimination. What do you expect will happen in the coming hours or days with Mariupol?

BEN HODGES: Well, I think people are going to be studying the defenders of Mariupol for decades. What an incredible example of human resolve and determination. But also, what an example of the ineptitude and the pitiful state of the Russian military. I mean, Mariupol should have been one of the first cities to fall when you think of all the advantages the Russians had - control of the Azov Sea, proximity to all of their forces up in Donbas - in northern part of Donbas, as well as in Crimea.

Instead, here we are, eight weeks later, and these incredible people - civilians as well as military - refusing to surrender. So this is a real test of will and - as well as skill. Awful lot of Russian forces are tied up around Mariupol right now. So if Mariupol ever does fall, that would release some more troops for the Russians. But that doesn't mean they'll all be fresh and ready to go into a new fight. And, of course, it would clean up some of their logistics eventually to be able to move in that region.

But I tell you, I think this has highlighted to me - I was looking at one of these famous maps that everybody sees now, and here we are at eight weeks into the fight - since February 24. Mariupol is still holding out, and Russia has only been able to capture, seize, occupy a sliver of Ukrainian territory. And I think they're at their end of their rope. They don't have tens of thousands of more troops and new stuff coming in. I mean, they're all in. I think we're looking at a Russia that is going to collapse as a state within the next four or five years - that have been sanctioned...

FADEL: Collapse as a state.

HODGES: Absolutely. We're going to see the breakup of the Russian Federation. I mean, they have not been able to capture or defeat Ukraine. And I think what we're seeing are signs of the sickness inside Russia.

FADEL: Are the events happening today likely to determine the extent of Moscow's success?

HODGES: Yeah, I think you're right, Leila. I think this is a decisive part of this conflict. Now, just one point to clarify. You know, the war has been going on for eight years - since 2014, when they invaded Ukraine and there was fighting in Donbas and they've occupied Crimea illegally - but eight weeks in terms of this latest horrific phase.

FADEL: But this war went much further.

HODGES: Yeah. And so the Kremlin has to be very concerned about what's going to happen. I mean, it will be impossible to hide the fact that somewhere between ten, fifteen thousand Russian soldiers and sailors have been killed. Whatever the exact number is, we'll never know. But it's clearly going to be, you know, upwards of 10,000. And this is going to continue. The Ukrainians are going to continue to make Russia bleed. It will be impossible to hide this from those thousands of Russian families and the rest of the public.

Now, interestingly, most of the Russian troops don't come from Moscow or St. Petersburg. So the army is made up of people from the hinterlands and different ethnicities. So the Russian elites, if you will, where it's most visible - they still are not really seeing all this. So we've got a job to do - providing truths to Russians is just as important as providing weapons to Ukrainians. And I think this should be part of our overall effort.

FADEL: Retired general and former commander of the U.S. Army in Europe, Ben Hodges, thank you so much for taking the time.

HODGES: Leila, thank you for the privilege. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.