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U.S. defense official says Russian forces are moving in on Ukraine's capital

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Russian forces have mounted the initial phase of a large-scale invasion of Ukraine with missile and airstrikes. A senior defense official told reporters today the aim is to seize the capital Kyiv and then to install a puppet regime.

NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman joins us now with more. Hi, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, how are you doing?

CHANG: Good. So can you just give us a better sense of what this initial phase is looking like right now?

BOWMAN: Well, it's really kind of the worst-case scenario the Pentagon predicted. We're seeing ongoing Russian attacks from the North toward Kyiv, with Russian forces continuing to approach the capital. And also the city of Kharkiv, just to the east of the capital, that's the area of the heaviest fighting; in the south, an attack on the city of Kherson, but farther to the south, no Russian troops just yet. There was an expectation, Ailsa, that Russian troops could land at the Port of Odessa on the Black Sea; no sign of them yet. And in the west, near the Polish border, some airstrikes, but no Russian troop presence.

Now, it's important to note there are some Russian units in southwest Belarus, and they could drop down into western Ukraine and toward the city of Lviv. That's a great concern. The targets, by the way, are military barracks, ammunition depots, airfields; some 160 missiles fired so far in those cities I mentioned. I'm told the future targets are in populated areas, so a serious threat to the civilian population.

CHANG: Yeah. And what are you hearing about how intensely the Ukrainian military is fighting back at the moment?

BOWMAN: Well, the Ukrainians are fighting back, we're told, in and around Kyiv and also the heaviest fighting to the east, that city of Kharkiv that I just mentioned. But they're really no match for the Russian military, a very strong military.

No word on casualties at this point. Clearly, there will be casualties, both military and civilian but, again, no details yet. I'm told some of the upcoming military targets, as I mentioned, are in those populated areas, so we have to watch out for that.

CHANG: OK, we've been talking about an initial phase, but what are the future phases expected to look like at this point? I mean, how long could this invasion go on?

BOWMAN: Well, some people are saying for days or maybe a couple of weeks. The Russians will likely grab Kyiv, isolate the city. Officials believe Putin again has a plan to decapitate the government and install a pro-Russian one. Another expectation is Russian forces will surround Ukrainian troops in the East. About half the Ukrainian army is located there. So the Russians could keep moving west from the Donbas region while other Russian troops could come down from the north from Belgorod in Russia and create sort of a vice. And as I said, there are a lot of Russian forces on ships in the Black Sea, and they - expected to head to Odessa. That would be another great concern.

CHANG: And what about the role of U.S. troops in all of this? I mean, President Biden reiterated that no U.S. troops are going into Ukraine, but we know that thousands of them are in Poland right now, correct?

BOWMAN: That's right. Thousands of troops from the 82nd Airborne Division are expected to handle, you know, any kind of humanitarian relief for Americans fleeing Ukraine into Poland. They've already set up tents in a number of locations and have a large sports stadium that could handle thousands. But at this point, there have not been a lot of Americans fleeing Ukraine into Poland. Of course, that could change in the coming days.

CHANG: That is NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Thank you, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.