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Ukraine's defense minister hopes allies will supply his country with fighter jets

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Last week, Ukraine was promised some Western-made military equipment it has long wanted - state-of-the-art tanks. And now Ukraine's defense minister, Oleksii Reznikov, says he's optimistic Western allies will supply his country with advanced fighter jets, even as Ukrainian forces are poised to start training as soon as possible on those newly committed Leopard and Abrams tanks.

NPR's Ukraine correspondent Joanna Kakissis recently spoke to him, and she's on the line from the southern city of Mykolaiv. Hi there.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Hi, Juana.

SUMMERS: So, Joanna, let's start with those advanced battle tanks that were recently promised to Ukraine. We're talking about the Leopard 2 and the Abrams. How quickly can they get on the battlefield, according to the Ukrainian defense minister?

KAKISSIS: So he says he hopes that training courses will start as soon as possible, like as soon as they get here, and that the training will be somewhere in Europe, where the terrain and weather is similar to Ukraine. Reznikov told us a similar fast-track training is also planned for the Patriot air defense missiles the U.S. promised Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in December.

OLEKSII REZNIKOF: Normal training courses for Patriot consists 10 months, but our servicemens (ph) will be ready with their trainers in the United States during probably 10 weeks. For the Leopards tanks, for example, normally could be half a year, but I hope that we will do it during one month or probably two months, not more.

KAKISSIS: He says some time will be needed to set up, like, the supply chain for fuel and spare parts and also train people to maintain and repair these new weapons. But he says these weapons will be a game changer, just like previous ones like the Javelins or HIMARs were.

SUMMERS: So what other weapons would the defense minister like to see deployed in Ukraine?

KAKISSIS: Well, like so many others in Ukraine, he's pushing for fighter jets, F-16s specifically. And Reznikov says he believes it's very likely that Ukraine will get them, as they've gotten other weapons in the past that, at first, seemed out of reach.

REZNIKOF: HIMARs, MLRS, NASAMS, IRIS-T and Patriot - everything what is impossible today absolutely possible tomorrow.

KAKISSIS: He says allies in the past have turned down weapons - weapon requests for what he calls pragmatic reasons, like it's hard to find spare parts. And in the case of these planes, he says, they're offering an argument he's already heard.

REZNIKOF: When I ask about F-16 or F platform, I never heard about it's a problem with the spare parts or supplying chains, et cetera, et cetera. The answer was normally, oh, Oleksii, you know, it's a very long period of training courses for your pilots.

KAKISSIS: And he says Ukraine is going to prove it can do shorter and more intense training, as they've done with other weapons.

SUMMERS: And Joanna, the West, though, generally remains cautious about sending all of these weapons. Did the defense minister speak to that at all?

KAKISSIS: Yes. You know, of course, Ukraine's leaders, including the defense minister, say the choice here is clear, that this war is about saving not just Ukraine but Western-style liberal democracy. And, you know, the Ukrainians want to reclaim their territory, too, very practically. The defense minister says that they can only do that when they have these advanced, Western weapons that they can use against Russian forces.

REZNIKOF: And we need to break through their defense lines in the battlefield and continue develop our counteroffensive campaign for liberation our temporarily occupied territories.

KAKISSIS: And, you know, however, Russia has accused the West of taking a direct role in this war by sending more and more sophisticated weapons to Kyiv. And this tension is causing divisions within NATO and the European Union family.

SUMMERS: There has also been concern here, as well as in European countries, about how military aid to Ukraine is spent. The defense ministry was recently accused of purchasing some food for Ukrainian soldiers at inflated prices. Did Reznikov address that?

KAKISSIS: He did. He dismissed those in charge of procuring supplies for soldiers. But I should note that before the war, most defense ministry expenses were public. So since the war, they've been classified for security reasons. And he says he's working on making the procurement process for military food and other supplies at least somewhat transparent. He says he knows that Ukraine needs trust from the West and its citizens to win this war and rebuild the country.

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

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

Joanna Kakissis
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.
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