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Ukrainian defense official talks about counteroffensive plans

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Ukraine appears on the verge of launching a counteroffensive to push Russian forces out of occupied land, using billions of dollars in weapons and ammunition donated by Western allies. President Biden has said that he wants to see a strategic defeat of Russia so that it's not able to wage war on its neighbors. NPR's Joanna Kakissis spoke with a top Ukrainian defense official who wants something even more ambitious than that. We've got Joanna on the line now. Hi, Joanna.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Hello, Juana.

SUMMERS: So, Joanna, tell us a little bit about the official that you spoke with and why he is so important to Ukraine.

KAKISSIS: So Oleksiy Danilov is the secretary of Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council, and he says he's one of the five people on the planet who know about Ukraine's counteroffensive plans.

OLEKSIY DANILOV: (Through interpreter) Not even the Pentagon has access to those plans. We are not going to share any of our plans. We have several options to choose from, and our president will choose the best one based on the circumstances.

KAKISSIS: Things like when to launch it, the resources they have. President Zelenskyy has said that Ukraine must have all the pieces in place, like enough ammunition, weapons, enough soldiers, anticipating what the Russian tactics will be. But Danilov says he's tired of Western reporters asking him about this counteroffensive. And he's also tired of some Western leaders placating Russian President Vladimir Putin. He says that resulted in Russia occupying and then illegally annexing the southern Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in 2014 and Russian proxies occupying parts of eastern Ukraine the same year. And he says when the Russians launched the full-scale invasion last February, the West should have offered more up-front assistance.

DANILOV: (Through interpreter) From the first day, we asked for a no-fly zone. Did everybody forget? Putin behaves as you allow him to behave. Are you scared of him? We are not. We will fight, defend our freedom, defend our independence. We will chew at them until the end.

KAKISSIS: He said that the Ukrainians would keep fighting Russian forces even if they had to do it with their teeth.

SUMMERS: Fight with their teeth. Joanna, that sounds pretty desperate to me.

KAKISSIS: Well, Juana, it's not desperation. Mr. Danilov says it's determination. He and others have said repeatedly that Ukraine needs more weapons. And that's because Mr. Danilov's idea of victory is very ambitious. Listen to how he describes it.

DANILOV: (Through interpreter) The Russian Federation must cease to exist insofar as it exists today. This way, it will cease being a threat to us and to all the neighbors around it. Our Western partners do not understand this. They are not preparing for the collapse of Russia, but we are.

SUMMERS: Joanna, what does he mean by the collapse of Russia?

KAKISSIS: So, Juana, before I answer that, I do want to say that we spoke to Mr. Danilov before the drone attacks on the Kremlin on Wednesday, which prompted Russian officials to accuse Ukraine of trying to assassinate President Putin. Now, President Zelenskyy and many other officials in his administration have strongly denied attacking Moscow. But they and Mr. Danilov have made clear that they do not see any chance of peace for Ukraine with President Putin in power. Danilov is not satisfied with regime change. And as you heard, he wants to see a breakup of the Russian Federation.

SUMMERS: Joanna, did he elaborate at all on how he expects that that would happen?

KAKISSIS: No, he did not elaborate. And military analysts say this is very unrealistic, that the very best-case scenario for Ukraine is that it gets its land back. But Danilov explained why he feels so strongly. He told us that Ukraine has felt vulnerable since the West took away its nuclear weapons in 1994. That disarmament came in exchange for promises by Russia that it would respect Ukraine's borders. And he says that clearly has not happened. So he wants the West to hold Russia accountable this time around.

SUMMERS: That's NPR's Joanna Kakissis in southern Ukraine. Joanna, thank you.

KAKISSIS: You're welcome, Juana. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.