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Ukraine says it needs help shooting down Russia's missile attacks

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Russia is hammering Ukraine with missile attacks, many aimed at electricity stations. And Ukraine is shooting down many of these missile strikes with its own air defenses. Here are Ukrainians witnessing and recording such a moment just last week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

SUMMERS: But Ukraine says it still needs more help from the U.S. and NATO. And to talk about this, we're joined by NPR's Greg Myre in Kyiv and NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman here in Washington. Welcome to you both.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good to be with you.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Juana.

SUMMERS: Greg, let's start with you. So a lot of these Russian missiles are being knocked out by Ukrainian air defenses. Roughly, how many are we talking about here?

MYRE: The Ukrainians say they're destroying around two-thirds or even three-quarters of these incoming Russian missiles. Russia fired 96 cruise missiles in a huge attack last Tuesday. Ukraine said it shot down 75 of them. The Ukrainians have been getting similar figures with these swarms of Russian drones that have been coming in. Now, we can't confirm the numbers, but we are seeing the videos, as we just heard there, and it does seem plausible. Nonetheless, Ukraine's air defenses are limited, and it's geared toward key government and military sites. So if Russia does fire dozens of missiles at once, at a large number of targets nationwide, then some are going to get through.

SUMMERS: And, Greg, what are Ukrainian officials telling you? Are they running low on these air defense missiles?

MYRE: Well, they're very tight-lipped when it comes to their air defenses. But here's what we know - when the war began, Ukraine relied on these old Soviet-era systems known as the S-300. Now, it's worked well; so well that Russian-manned planes were being shot down at a very high rate, and Russia, for the last several months, has rarely been sending manned aircraft into Ukrainian airspace. But Ukraine is believed to be running low on the missiles needed for this S-300 system, and it's hard to find new ammunition. These missiles are not made in the West. Now, I spoke about this with Colonel Yuriy Ignat. He's the spokesman for Ukraine's air force.

YURIY IGNAT: (Through interpreter) Ukraine does not have enough firepower to be fully protected from the sky. That is why we ask the whole world to help Ukraine by any means.

SUMMERS: So, Tom, to that point, what have the United States and NATO offered so far?

BOWMAN: Well, one of the big one that arrived recently is called NASAMS, which can track dozens of targets. And it's the same system that protects the White House. That's been very effective. Also new systems are coming in from Sweden, Germany. And just over the weekend, Great Britain offered some anti-aircraft guns to target drones. There's even talk of providing American-made Patriot missile defense systems among the world's best. They're used by many Western nations and highly sought after. But it's uncertain if any country would be willing to loan a Patriot system to Ukraine. Now, last week, General Mark Milley, the top Pentagon officer, said air defense was at the top of the list. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARK MILLEY: As Ukraine continues to fight, air defense capabilities are becoming critical for their future success. And a significant portion of today's conversations in today's meeting with almost 50 countries focused on how we can provide the right mix of air defense systems.

SUMMERS: Tom, we heard Milley mention 50 countries there. Who are they, and what can we expect to see from them?

BOWMAN: Well, it's called a contact group, and they met last week. And I'm told many of them promised more air defense missiles, as well as systems. And there's a plan to beef up air defenses over the coming months into the spring. Now, you'll never be able to cover the entire country but many critical areas like cities, troop concentrations and so forth. Another concern is what General Milley said about preventing the Russians from achieving air superiority, meaning the freedom to fly anywhere in the skies over Ukraine and attack targets. They still don't have that capability because of these air defenses. And early in the war, Russia lost a couple of hundred aircraft flying over Ukraine. Now they're flying over a safe distance from Ukraine, over Belarus, over the Black Sea or the Russian mainland. And the U.S. and NATO want to make sure through even stronger air defenses that no Russian pilot will feel safe flying into Ukraine again.

SUMMERS: And, Greg, back to you in Kyiv. One key goal Ukraine has is to defend its electricity grid. From your vantage point, how is it coping?

MYRE: Well, right now, we're just locked in this cycle. A Russian attack knocks out power. Ukraine quickly repairs it, usually restoring power in less than 24 hours. But each time this happens, it chips away at Ukraine's overall capacity. So right now, residents here in Kyiv or other cities might typically expect a scheduled power outage of four hours or so a day. But energy companies are warning this could become days at a time.

SUMMERS: Thanks to you both.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

MYRE: My pleasure.

SUMMERS: That's NPR's Greg Myre in Kyiv and Tom Bowman in Washington. 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.
Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.