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More Russian troops and artillery head into eastern Ukraine


And now more on Ukraine. Russia is moving more troops, artillery and helicopters into Ukraine's eastern Donbas region. Meanwhile, the U.S. and NATO are sending Ukrainian forces even more arms, including more sophisticated weapons, ahead of what could be this war's deciding battle. And in the middle of all this, Ukraine says it has destroyed the flagship of Russia's Black Sea naval fleet. The cause of the sinking is unconfirmed, but Russia says an onboard fire crippled the ship.

Joining us now to talk about all of this is NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Hi, Tom.


CHANG: OK, so what more do we know about Ukrainian forces supposedly attacking this Russian ship?

BOWMAN: Well, first of all, the Russians initially would only say there was some sort of a fire aboard. And now Russian state media, just within the last hour or so, is quoting its defense ministry as saying the ship has sunk. Now, there were about 500 sailors aboard this cruise, we were told, and some were evacuated to other Russian ships. Russia now says all 500 have been evacuated and the ship sank while being towed to port.

So what happened? Earlier, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said the Pentagon could not confirm that Ukrainian missiles hit the Moskva, but it was not refuting it, saying the ship was within range of the Neptune missiles. Kirby said there was a significant explosion and a fire.

So whatever happened, it's clearly very significant. This is the flagship of the Russian Black Sea fleet. Four or five other Russian ships in the Black Sea headed south after the incident. And of course, this comes, Ailsa, just three weeks after a Russian supply ship was sunk, Ukrainians say, by a missile again at a port in the Sea of Azov. So this will focus the Russian attention on their ability to resupply themselves and the danger of sailing closer to shore. Those missiles, Ailsa, have a range of 180 miles.

CHANG: Wow. Well, as we said, Russian troops and arms are heading to the Donbas region while Ukrainians are getting a lot more Western support. Tom, can you just tell us, at this point in this war, what are the challenges for each side?

BOWMAN: Well, it would be harder for Ukraine. The fight will be on flat, open ground, not like Kyiv, urban and suburban areas where Ukraine had small units kind of darting in and out from behind houses, shooting anti-tank missiles at Russian vehicles on the road. This will be large formations of troops facing each other. So the U.S. and NATO are sending tools for that job - 155 mm howitzers, helicopters, anti-artillery radar, attack drones. Ukrainians need these weapons desperately and fast. And defense analysts are wondering if it can get there in time. Also, moving some of this heavier equipment from Poland and Romania across Ukraine to the east could mean getting targeted by Russian aircraft or missiles. That's a concern.

Now, Russia also knows the terrain in the east. They've been fighting there for years, have better supply lines, but its forces have been badly mauled (ph) trying to take the capital, Kyiv. Many units are lacking enough troops and combat power. So the question is, can they put together an effective fighting force? Ukrainian forces are in this area in large numbers; most of its army, by the way. So Russia will try to box them in.

CHANG: Yeah.

BOWMAN: Everyone agrees this battle in the coming weeks will be brutal and maybe decisive for how the war turns out.

CHANG: That is NPR's Tom Bowman. Thank you very much, Tom.

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

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.
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