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Top Zelenskyy adviser discusses Ukraine's latest military moves

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

All right, now we're going to hear about Ukraine's perspective on these Russian plans. And we're joined by NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre in Washington. Greg, we had this breaking news this morning, and I understand you yesterday spoke with a top adviser to Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy. What message did he deliver?

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: That's right. I spoke by Zoom with Mykhailo Podolyak, who is a part of Zelenskyy's inner circle. He was in the heavily fortified presidential administration compound (inaudible) in Ukraine's capital, Kyiv. Now, of course, yesterday he didn't know the details of Putin's speech about the referenda and the mobilization of more Russian troops, but he certainly anticipated the substance of what Putin would say. And he says Russia and its allies have taken this military defeat on the battlefield in eastern Ukraine, so they're trying to change the narrative quite rapidly and claim these territories are now formally part of Russia.

MARTINEZ: If Russia does try to hold these referenda in the coming days, how does Ukraine see it all playing out?

MYRE: Well, we should note that - as we just heard a couple moments ago, that Russia annexed Crimea after seizing that Ukrainian territory in 2014. So Ukraine has seen this movie before. Now, many Ukrainian civilians have fled these other regions that may be annexed in eastern and southern Ukraine. The fighting has obviously greatly disrupted normal life there already. But some of those who have remained in these areas do support Russia, and if they vote in a referendum in favor of joining Russia, Moscow could recognize this ballot, even though it would widely be seen as illegitimate, certainly throughout Ukraine. So let's listen to Podolyak. Our NPR colleague Julian Hayda was in the office in Kyiv, and he provides the translation.

MYKHAILO PODOLYAK: (Through interpreter) This is a cynical attempt in response to what is going on on the battlefield. There's no legal basis for this. You can't have a referendum in a place that is currently under military occupation. This attempt is to distract from Ukraine's effective counteroffensive.

MARTINEZ: Greg, would any other country even recognize such a move?

MYRE: The vast majority certainly would not. The U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Bridget Brink, has already weighed in on Twitter. She called this - said it would be a sham referendum. It's a sign of weakness and Russian failure. And she said, quote, "the United States will never recognize Russia's claim to purportedly annexed Ukrainian territory." Now, perhaps Russia could get one or two of its partners to go along and buy into this, but even that may be a stretch. Podolyak believes Russia is acting with this sense of urgency because it has suffered these battlefield setbacks and could lose control of some of this territory that it would like to annex. And he thinks that Russia wants to proclaim this Russian territory and then make the argument that this is Russian land being invaded by Ukraine. Here he is again.

PODOLYAK: (Through interpreter) I'm sure they'll maybe make some films. They'll make it look like they're doing something. But it won't be widespread. This is a matter of making it appear like they have control over the territory, but there is nobody to actually implement this.

MARTINEZ: You know, Ukraine has been able to improve its position on the battlefield with the help of U.S. intelligence and U.S. weapons. What is Ukraine looking for now at this point?

MYRE: Right. Podolyak was very clear - three things. First, more of these rocket systems known as HIMARS. The U.S. has provided 16, and they provide - fire very precisely up to 50 miles and are inflicting great damage. Second, tanks and other armored vehicles. He said these would be critical as Ukraine presses its offensive and tries to firmly establish some positions before the winter. And third, more air defense system. Russia is firing these long-range missiles, and he says Ukraine needs these air defense systems to shoot more of them down.

MARTINEZ: All right, NPR's Greg Myre. Thanks a lot, Greg.

MYRE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.