A panel of journalists who have recently spent time covering the war in Ukraine discusses the situation on the ground there and in the surrounding region, and policy considerations for the United States and NATO allies.
LABOTT: Thanks very much, Kayla. And thank you, everybody, for this very timely panel of journalists who have recently spent time covering the war in Ukraine for not just a discussion of the situation on the ground there and policy considerations for the U.S. and its NATO allies, but also their personal perceptions.
Obviously, covering conflict is never easy for journalists. We’re trying to report on the ground but also tell the human story and the toll that it’s taking on the people involved. So I couldn’t think of a better panel to dive right in, kind of real veteran correspondents of foreign policy and conflict. Vivian Salama is national security correspondent for Wall Street Journal; Nick Schifrin, foreign affairs and defense correspondent for PBS NewsHour; and Joshua Yaffa, contributing writer for New Yorker and author of Between Two Fires: Truth, Ambition, and Compromise in Putin’s Russia.
And Vivian and Nick have just recently returned from the region, but Josh has the distinction of joining us from an airport in Warsaw, where he literally just left Ukraine this morning, so everyone’s got real fresh impressions of what’s going on on the ground and also how the war is evolving and how that’s affecting our coverage of the war.
So, Josh, let’s start with you. We’ve all, you know, covered conflicts, but I’d love to hear in particular the evolution of this conflict since it started in February. You know, obviously there was a lot of shock at the audacity of the invasion and we didn’t anticipate the Ukrainians putting up such a stiff resistance. Now people in the military here are even talking about Ukraine maybe winning in the end, but obviously it’s going to drag on. So I’d love to start with you about the evolution, as you’ve seen it on the ground, how the narrative has changed, and also how that’s affecting your personal coverage.
YAFFA: Sure. Thanks for the question. Happy to be here with everyone today.
So my story or my participation in the war actually began before the war started. I arrived on my first reporting trip—I’m now just finishing my third—on February 8th, I believe, so I arrived two weeks before the war ultimately started to get a sense of what then were the expectations surrounding the possibility of invasion and remained in Ukraine through February 24th, and through, in fact, the end of middle of March. And I’ve now been back two more times, and over that time, you know, I’ve watched, just like observers from near and afar—have seen the invasion go from what was meant to be this blitzkrieg attack on Kyiv and other large cities, but certainly with Kyiv as the real focus of attention—and I remember being in Kyiv on the 25th, 26th, 27th of February and the mood very much was, is today the day, if not exactly that Kyiv falls, then is Kyiv, you know, encircled today, right? Will there be a blockade of Kyiv? Will Russia complete an encirclement of its military forces of Kyiv, and that really was a very present, well, risk—at least it felt like a very present risk, right?
And that not only influenced my coverage in those days but also just my own personal logistics and calculations about, you know, was I—where I was going to be and when and what was my appetite—or tolerance for potentially being on the inside of that encirclement? And of course, that didn’t happen. The Ukrainian forces fought back, fought Russian forces off, not just from Kyiv but from other large cities—Kharkiv, Chernihiv, and other places across Ukraine—and then what we’ve seen is the shift to the war in the east, and that’s where I just returned from now.
I was just—spent several days in the Donbas in eastern Ukraine, and that is where Russia, quite publicly, has moved its forces, moving both the military aims but also its political or rhetorical aims and speaking—Putin, Lavrov, other Russian officials speaking much more about the Donbas, acting as if the Donbas was the focus of the war the whole time, kind of conveniently forgetting their failed attempt to seize Kyiv. But it really is almost a different war these days than the war I remember from February and March. It’s now an artillery war. I’ve spent some time with Ukrainian soldiers on the front in Donbas who say that they are eager, ready, hoping to fight the enemy, but they simply do not see the enemy. These are battles that are happening at distances of ten or twenty miles, when there are very little frontal assaults like we saw in February and March when you had Russian tanks, for example, barreling down on Kyiv, and small, agile units of Ukrainian soldiers could fight them off with things like U.S.-provided Javelin anti-tank weapons.
Well, now that’s not the case. Ukrainian soldiers simply don’t see the Russian invasion forces, you know, which stands at a distance, like I said, ten, twenty, thirty miles, uses heavy artillery, cluster munitions that are not just exacting an increasing toll on the Ukrainian military—President Zelensky said in recent days that up to a hundred Ukrainian soldiers a day are now being killed in the conflict, which is a really, you know, frightful number that will, in due course, have an impact on Ukraine’s military capabilities, but also leveling cities in their way. The new Russian strategy, that we saw in Syria, seems to be to first demoralize the oppositional fighting force and really effectively level the target city and then, once both all the soldiers are either, frankly, you know, dead or having to flee because of this unceasing artillery and air assault, then, only then, do Russian troops enter effectively ruined and empty cities. It’s a pretty ghastly strategy, but, slowly but surely, Russia is inching, meter by meter, as even Ukrainian military officials admit, in the east. You know, what sort of “victory,” in quotes, that would even be—if, in fact, Russia was able to, say, complete a territorial takeover through these military means of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions that make up the Donbas—you know, what would that mean in terms of a long-term political solution? How tenable is that? Could Russia defend those territorial gains from future Ukrainian counteroffensives? Those are all open questions.
But, to close, in terms of what that’s all meant from my reporting—of course, like, my colleagues that we’ll hear from, you know—I’ve tried to follow the geography of the war, right? That’s why I was in Kyiv in March, February and March, and why I was in the east now, and in between in some places that Russian forces tried to attack or, in fact, indeed held in February and March and then abandoned, like, suburbs outside of Kyiv, Chernihiv as well, so I’ve tried to, on an immediate sense, sort of go where the Russian forces are, which is an obvious way of tracking the war to see where Russia is, you know, having—where Russia is—how Russia wages this war, right, and the effect it’s having on both the Ukrainian military and the populations that are—bear the brunt of this assault but to also understand how it’s changing Ukraine and what that means for the future of Ukraine and how Ukrainian society is responding to this assault.
LABOTT: Yeah, thanks, Josh, for that excellent scene setter.
Vivian, pick up on that. You’ve just recently returned from the region. You were there in the beginning and this is—and you’ve been there a few times. Talk to us about this kind of emotional rollercoaster that you see on the ground Ukrainians going through, one minute, you know, in the beginning, again, shocked by the, you know, audacity of it and didn’t think it would last very long, but then, you know, there was this kind of rallying of Ukraine as a whole, not just the military but civilians that were taking up arms, and now we see, though there’s this kind of return to normal in some cities, which we’ll get into, now, you know, it’s looking very bleak in the Donbas area once again. And so talk to us about that kind of rollercoaster and how that’s affected you as a reporter and your coverage on the ground.
SALAMA: Thanks, Elise. Yeah, rollercoaster is probably the best way to describe it, because of the fact that, day to day, obviously the situation changes and there is a constant anticipation that the Russians could regroup. A lot of eyes—I just got back three days ago and a lot of eyes were on Belarus when I was leaving because of a regrouping of troops there and there was this sense, even in Kyiv, which has largely returned to normal at this point, but there was still this sense that there could be a renewed offensive against Kyiv and that that sort of renewed, like, newly found stability could be at risk and was fragile. And so constantly people I’m talking to—very concerned about that but also very much embracing the tapering down of violence in their cities and things like that. And so, you know, you have this, on one hand, you know, the realities in Kyiv and out west where life is largely returning to normal.
I mean, I was chatting with you all before and saying, you know, I went into a restaurant on one of my first nights in Kyiv and there was, like, a guy on a bass with a jazz band, like, playing for people and everyone—you know, people are still outdoors at the cafes in Kyiv. And the more you go east you still see it. You know, in cities like Dnipro and Zaporizhzhia, where I spent probably the bulk of my time on this trip particularly, there is still a sense of normalcy. But the weird thing about Zaporizhzhia—and, you know, about 60 percent of the region, of the oblast in Zaporizhzhia, is occupied at the moment, but the city of Zaporizhzhia itself is not. And there is very much a sense of normalcy. People are going to work and the city tram is moving around and it seems quite normal, but several times while we were there we were woken up by blasts, including one that was quite bad, that was probably the worst one they had seen, just last week. So they do feel that there is a bit of fragility to that stability, and especially in a city like Zaporizhzhia, which is further southeast, where they feel like there is a sense that Russia could try to push toward the city, you know, in lieu of the losses that it has experienced elsewhere in the country, and especially as it gains a stronger foothold in Donbas. Obviously, Mariupol fell while I was there and that has given them also an opportunity to sort of expand from there.
And so that is like—it’s a fragility, really. It’s a rollercoaster. On the one hand, people are really happy that certain cities are returning to normal, but, on the other hand, they do recognize the fact that it could flip at any moment and that Russians could regroup and try to attack them again.
The other thing that Ukrainian officials kept on telling me is that they were concerned about a complacency because of that renewed stability in the sense that, you know, they still need people, young men, to go out there on the front lines, they need people to be fighting this, and the more life returns to normal in places like Kyiv and elsewhere, the harder it’s going to be to try to kind of rally these guys and say, your brothers in Donbas are still fighting; go and help them. And so they are concerned about that because they do recognize—you know, you talk to the soldiers on the front line—I don’t know if Josh would agree and Nick—like, you talk to the soldiers and a lot of them are really, you know, still very patriotic and gung ho, and one of them joked with me that he had his swimsuit packed because we were going to go to Crimea together. He said, I hope you have your swimsuit because we’re going to Crimea, you know? And so there is like a very nationalistic, gung-ho sense with a lot of these younger soldiers, but then you talk to the defense officials in Kyiv and they’re like, slow your roll—(laughs)—we’re not there yet. Like, they’re a lot more realistic that this is going to be a very drawn-out, very bloody battle, and that’s why they’re so focused on getting more weapons, getting more assistance. But they’re also very focused on keeping their young people, you know, mobilized and motivated to fight the enemy and not to grow too complacent with the situation. So it is a rollercoaster, like you said.
LABOTT: Yeah, Nick, pick up on that. I mean, I think we’ve all been—and, you know, this is—and we’ll get into this a bit in a bit—this is not a civil war; this is not citizens fighting against their government. This is a state-to-state war. And I want to get into—Vivian had some interesting impressions about that, but in terms of, like, these are civilians that are, you know, kind of joining the fight, whether it’s, you know, picking up arms, whether it’s taking care of the troops, everyone has this kind of patriotic duty, and at the same time, as Vivian and Josh said, you know, trying to go about their daily lives, trying to be normal, you know, going to a restaurant, which you’ve been throughout the country, you’ve seen as well. So talk to us about that kind of dichotomy between the resilience and everybody kind of joining this effort with the fact that, you know, how—is it going to really come down to whether the country has enough mettle and enough resilience and doesn’t get complacent, or, you know, have you found that, you know, this is an impressive effort by the Ukrainian people that, in the end, isn’t going to be enough?
SCHIFRIN: Yes, yes, and yes, perhaps. So yeah, of course this fight’s going to be an element of willpower that will need to sustain for a long time, if the Ukrainians are ever going to have some version of victory that Zelensky is talking about.
I would say that the resilience of the Ukrainian people is remarkable and has been heavily covered, but it is not an either/or. You can have a jazz club in Kyiv and you can have a totally normal city of Lviv and, as Viv said, even Dnipro and Zaporizhzhia, to a certain extent, feel normal. That resilience is part—is just one side of the same coin that has led so many young men to put their wives and children on trains and then go back to the front, has led so many people who are from Lviv and from Kyiv to be volunteers in the east, risking their own lives, risking mortars and artillery in order to deliver food and water to civilians who are inexplicably staying in their homes, trying to convince them to leave. So I think that the willpower of the Ukrainian people will be tested. I think the willpower of the Russians could be tested too, so that’s a longer-term question. And we already can say that the willpower of the Russian soldier was tested and they failed to meet that test around Kyiv and Kharkiv.
So yeah, of course it’s going to be a willpower test; it will also be about weapons. You know, as Viv just said, the military is sanguine, I would say. The head, the top of the military is sanguine. I also think that there’s actually people around Zelensky who are even a little bit more cynical. I talked to a couple of them who doubt that the military can dislodge the Russians from Kherson, from the parts of Zaporizhzhia that they control, from Mariupol, jeez. You know, we were on the edge of the front line in Kherson, which is the south—you know, Josh rightly focused on the east as the shifting focus, but strategically, you know, if Ukraine loses Kherson to some kind of annexation, that’s an extraordinarily difficult moment for Ukraine, both militarily today but also diplomatically in the future. And so yeah, Zelensky’s people are already doubtful that the military can dislodge the Russians from Kherson. What they hope and what various Ukrainian officials give different versions of but that they get more of the MLRS systems that would allow them to basically do what they’re doing already but from a larger distance and with more precision and try and dislodge some of those Russians across the south and southeast, but that is really not very easy at all.
And the one thing that I’ll just add and throw it back to you, Elise, is, you know, we’ve talked about the fight, we’ve talked about the civilians joining in the fight; there are also obviously millions upon millions upon millions upon millions of civilians who have been displaced, who have felt like they’ve had to become refugees, and I think one other part of the war story of all of our coverage has been the places where Russians are no longer there and what those civilians went through and are still going through. So, just quickly, I would say Bucha and Irpin, those twin towns we’ve talked so much about, Chernihiv—Josh mentioned that as well—where I was: a real posttraumatic stress. Huge swaths of Chernihiv still haven’t been cleaned up. There’s this one square where forty-five people died in a massive bombing, and interviewing people there and the deputy governor, there really is a level of trauma there. There’s a village outside of Chernihiv that’s literally gone—it looks like a hurricane hit it—where people just lost so many people, so many members of their family, and there’s a real trauma there, and also in Kharkiv. So the villages east of Kharkiv, west of the river that we—that I’m sure many of you have noticed the Russians failed to cross a couple times—(laughs)—up near Kharkiv. Those villages were occupied for three, four weeks, and the stories that the villagers tell—rape, pillaging, you know, villages that still don’t have water, electricity, power. The people who’ve stayed just have absolutely nothing and have that thousand-yard stare. You know, we’ll be dealing with trying to help those people recover from their trauma, let alone helping Ukraine rebuild those villages and towns and cities, for a long time.
LABOTT: Josh, you wrote a gripping piece recently about the—about life under Russian occupation in Melitopol—I think I might be saying that wrong, but in southern Ukraine. And, you know, this is a city, like in another areas, that used to have strong ties and sympathies to Russia and now, you know, that’s gone and I think it’s a perfect example of how the Russians may take physical control of people in the country in various cities, but things have changed, like that kind of—you know, and obviously you still have, you know, people in the Donbas that, you know, have ties to Russia and sympathies toward Russia. But, you know, even if Russia were to occupy this area, you know, for the long—you know, medium to long term, you know, the people have been pretty clear that you can, you know, occupy our city but, you know, we’re never going to be a Russian city.
YAFFA: Yeah. You’re right in describing the overall situation. I think that gets to a kind of precondition or a bit of analysis or understanding that Putin himself had of Ukraine that led him to launch this war and I think Putin was actually correct about one thing—I think, you know, correct in the diagnosis but sort of wholly and horrifically wrong in the treatment—which is understanding that Russia, Putin’s Russia, the particular form that Russia is as a political structure today, was losing, if not had lost, Ukraine, right, that allegiances were shifting, that these old cultural, historical ties didn’t mean what they used to, that language was not determinative, right? It doesn’t necessarily matter whether Ukrainian speaks Russian or Ukrainian as a native language, right? That doesn’t imply much about political attitudes, that Ukraine was drifting away from Russia. It was, and it was becoming both more European but also more Ukrainian, right? It was developing and had developed an independent sense of national identity, and this clearly freaked Putin out, right? He saw this as an existential risk for Russia, at least the version of Russia that he has come to rule for twenty-two years, and the only response he could come up with to this process was to force Ukraine back into Russia’s orbit and back into Russia’s control with military means, the most kind of crude and direct form of bending Ukraine to Russia’s will.
If Putin is going to risk losing Ukraine, then he’s going to act now—sooner, rather than later, before, you know, Ukraine drifted, in some irreversible way, away from Russia’s orbit, and then it really would be a war against kind of a foreign land, not as in Putin’s mind—as he sees it, right, the kind of rejoining of these—it’s actually hard to make sense of what Putin thinks. Are they kind of brotherly nations? Are they the same nation? Do Ukrainians not exist at all, actually? So Putin’s rhetoric is a bit muddy there, but the idea is that these people in some sort of historical—you know, to restore some sense of “historical justice,” in quotes, as Putin understands it, however sort of muddled and macabre that reasoning is, and he’s going to use the military to do so. And I saw that play out in a city like Melitopol, which you mentioned, which I wrote a long story about for the New Yorker some weeks ago and about the mayor in Melitopol, a young, charismatic, very pro-Ukrainian figure, someone emblematic of this new generation of Russian politics. I think there’s also a really interesting generational element at play here, if we look at who is running Ukraine—
YAFFA: —Zelensky in his forties, the mayor of Melitopol, thirty-three years old, versus Putin and the coterie of so-called “siloviki,” the security officials around him who are all in their late sixties or seventies and come from the security establishment, the KGB, had very different formative experiences in the ’80s watching the Soviet empire collapse, than the younger generation of Ukrainian leaders who experienced a great explosion of opportunity from that same event, and so I think there’s a real generational division there, but also a cultural one and a political one. And a place like Melitopol long ago, long before this invasion—that’s the great tragedy I think Putin missed is that the window in which Russia could express or exert its will over a place like Melitopol had closed. By the time that Russia invaded, the people of Melitopol had already moved on; psychically, politically, culturally, they had become Ukrainian, they had become European. There was a lot of development in the city. There was new hospitals opening up, schools, parks. The people in the town—in the city I spoke to had positive things to say about the ice rink that opened last year. Life had—a kind of life had emerged in Melitopol, like in so many other towns across Ukraine, including Kherson, the largest occupied city at the moment in Ukraine, that had sort of very little to do with Russia. And of course, that presented a real threat to Putin, and we’ve seen how he’s dealt with that threat, but it also means that Russian force alone can’t twist the arms of these cities and inhabitants to somehow become Russian.
I mean, another question we’re seeing is that—in places like Melitopol, Kherson, others, people who have a strong sense of whether it’s Ukrainian identity, European identity, leave, right? So you’re seeing a kind of exodus. People who would be—who are the most, you know, “Europeanized,” worldly educated, the least likely to sort of tolerate living under Russian rule, they leave, so that changes the demographics of the city. A place like Melitopol—half the population is gone, but we still see effectively a kind of partisan movement emerging in places like Melitopol and Kherson. There are attacks—there was a car bombing in Melitopol, actually, just a couple days ago, directed at local collaborationist officials. So I think it will be difficult for Russia to turn places like Melitopol into Crimea, for example, right? I think Crimea was a kind of one-off in terms of the degree to which Russia can at least keep a kind of surface political calm, but then again, as we heard from Vivian, I believe, who mentioned that, you know, Ukrainian officials are doubtful—the degree to which there’s a military solution here, right? And I think it will ultimately come down to that. I don’t think Russia will give up these territories, however difficult they are to manage or govern, until it is ejected from them militarily, and that’s a really big task for Ukraine in the months and, who knows, years ahead.
SALAMA: And Josh, what you just described is very similar also to the Mariupol story. Of course, they’re quite close together geographically, but I had spent some time there in January and February, obviously before the war began, and in Mariupol it’s a really interesting story because they faced a lot of violence in 2014 and ’15, where a lot of separatists were shelling the city. There was a—there were deaths. The Ukrainian military managed to come in in 2015 and sort of push the separatists out and push the front line back further into Donbas a bit. But it was a sort of reckoning for the city in terms of everyone is, you know, is Russian-speaking, pretty much everyone is Russian-speaking there. A lot of the residents have Russian ethnic roots. They trace their ancestry to Russia. A lot of them have lived in Russia or have relatives living in Russia. And so it was always a very complicated situation, and the Ukrainian government, despite the fact that Mariupol is so isolated, and Melitopol—like the whole southeast tends to be very isolated. You have really bad roads to get there. The infrastructure is just not as great as it is in other parts of the country, but what they did is they started to get international organizations to come in and build the city, pour the money into infrastructure and try to help them build. You know, give businesses grants and things like that—basically, a hearts and minds campaign that they were trying to do.
LABOTT: Let me interject a little, Viv, because you’ve talked about how this is the first war that you’ve covered that involved two state actors fighting each other, and usually like—I think there’s—this isn’t a civil conflict in the sense that Russia is the aggressor here, but because you have, like, different populations with different agendas in there, it further complicates that. But I think one of the reasons—and tell me if I’m wrong—is that even the people with Russian sympathies are kind of moving away towards Russia is because there are usually some universally accepted laws of war, and that’s not the case here. The Russians are really going for this kind of scorched earth policy that even is alienating people that might orient towards Russia.
SALAMA: I mean, this was the problem, right? So the city had essentially shifted because of a lot of this effort by the Ukrainian government, and so what was—could have been an easy win for Moscow, once upon a time, was not so clear-cut in 2022 because of the fact that the city had rebuilt itself. The city had even left a lot of the shelled buildings from the 2014-2015 era as a reminder of what Russian aggression looked like. But it wasn’t so clear-cut in terms of—you know, a lot of them in February 2022 were telling me, we don’t necessarily want Russia—we don’t want to live in a Russian-occupied city, but they also didn’t think Kyiv was delivering for them completely and they felt like they were isolated and not benefiting from the central government in the way other parts of the country were. So it was a very complicated situation moving into it. But one of the basic things and what happened, you know, when Russia started shelling Mariupol, is that a combination of factors, is that you had telecoms cut off; you had, you know, people who could flee, who had the money to flee, who had gasoline, which is a huge issue in the country, and were able to fill their tanks up and drive away, were able to get out early.
But remember, and in the lead-up to this invasion, the Ukrainian government was downplaying the risk, telling everybody stay calm, everything is going to be fine, you know, we don’t want to panic, and so a lot of people stayed in place and the shelling started at that point, and so people had to kind of find their way out and it took a long time for the various logistical reasons I said. And so it wasn’t necessarily that people were favoring Russia or kind of were open to the idea of Russian invasion that they stayed, but a lot of times they were just stuck there, it was too dangerous to get out into the streets. But for the most part, yeah, I think you’d find that there are certain segments of the population that didn’t necessarily believe that they were anti-Russia—you know, they felt, OK, if it would be a Crimea situation, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad, but at the same time, we don’t really align ourselves with Russia anymore; we align ourselves more with Ukraine.
And so it’s a very complicated situation. It was not black and white. Nothing is black and white, but especially in that part of the country, where just this mixed, you know, ethnic orientation, linguistic orientation—I mean, they relate to both countries so deeply, and some people would even tell you they relate, you know, culturally to Russia more. They watch Russian news. They watch Russian television. It was a—they were conflicted. Of course, they were conflicted.
SCHIFRIN: Just to—
SCHIFRIN: Just to jump in—sorry—on that.
Three examples of mayors who I interviewed, who were all seen as pro-Russian before the war—the mayor of Kharkiv, the mayor of Odesa, and the mayor of Kryvyi Rih—and I’ll highlight the mayor of Kryvyi Rih, who was brought on after the war started and had been seen as very pro-Russian and got a call from a Russian saying, hey, why don’t you give up the city and he says, Russian warship, go F yourself, and that moment became a rallying cry for the city.
And this fascinating moment with Odesa—I don’t speak Russian or Ukrainian. The Odesa mayor barely speaks Ukrainian, and my translator, obviously, speaks both but is, obviously, from western Ukraine. And so the Odesa mayor, at some point, tries to switch to Ukrainian and my translator says, he doesn’t—pointing to me—he doesn’t speak either one. He doesn’t really care. And he’s, like, no, no, no. I want to try because I want to make a point. I am not pro-Russian. I’m not going to speak Russian.
And so it’s not just the young generation. It is a sea change, and Josh is just—it’s such an insightful point that you made that Putin got the diagnosis right but the treatment wrong.
And then the other part of this I just wanted to quickly say is there are lots of families—I mean, we’ve all done these interviews—where, you know, whether it’s in Kharkiv or Odesa or the Donbas people will say, I called my brother’s family, I called my husband’s family in Rostov, in Moscow, and we told them what was happening and they didn’t believe us, and—
LABOTT: Yeah. I spoke to—I spoke to a minister who told me the same about his brother. He called his brother in Moscow and the brother is, like, you know, totally didn’t believe anything he’s saying. So, I mean, clearly, you know, and that’s, obviously, so many issues of, you know, kind of Russians—the Russian crackdown on the media, disinformation.
Josh, you’ve said that this is kind of, you know, a war of totality against the country, against the people, and even if, you know, Russia’s aims are being refocused or even if they’re kind of losing ground in some areas that that doesn’t narrow their ambition in scope, and even if the Russians are able to cleave off Donbas that doesn’t mean that the war is going to end.
And so talk to us about, you know, where this is going, in your view, from here, and then we’ll, you know, kind of bring in Josh and Nick and Vivian on the international kind of component.
YAFFA: I don’t know where it’s going is the honest answer. But wherever that terminal point I don’t think we’re going to reach it anytime soon. It’s possible that through this really brutal artillery war of destruction and attrition that Russia could eke out a territorial victory in the near term, bringing under control the administrative borders of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions and Russia would try to present that as a victory.
I don’t think that would be the close of the war for Russia. I think that, actually, Putin’s war aims from the beginning remain the same. Even if the geography has shifted, I think he’s still looking to deal a long-term generational blow to Ukraine’s ability to present a military and geopolitical threat to Putin as he understands it.
So I think weakening Ukraine, especially weakening Ukraine militarily but also economically in terms of its infrastructure, its industrial capacity, I think that those are goals that remain and those will not be goals that finish even if Russia is able to extend its military control over the Donbas.
But, of course, you know, Russia is only one party to this war. We have Ukraine and its forces that are being steadily armed by the West. We saw yesterday, I believe, this HIMARS system, the MLRS—the multiple rocket system that Ukraine had been asking for. It was approved by the White House and should be entering the battlefield soon.
Already in the Donbas I heard Ukrainian soldiers really boasting of the capability, for example, of the American M777 howitzers, the CAESAR—French CAESAR—artillery system. These are really bringing a new capability to Ukraine that it didn’t have before, and the new HIMARS system will add both precision and range to Ukraine’s capability.
So even if Russia were to, for example, you know, meter by meter, artillery shell by artillery shell, come to control the administrative borders of the Donbas, Ukraine, certainly, wouldn’t accept that. Ukraine’s not going to accept Russian control of Donbas. Ukraine is not going to accept Russian control of Kherson.
Those may be really difficult fights. But right now, my sense of Ukrainian society and the political realities facing Zelensky that Ukraine will have to, at least, fight—will have to try to, at least, fight for those territories. I can’t see Ukraine preemptively giving up on Kherson, giving up on other parts of Zaporizhzhia region or the Donbas.
So, you know, they’re—what we’re seeing right now is a Russian offensive which may or may not accomplish its goals. That’s also a big question. I mean, the cost to Russia to, for example, encircle a city like Sievierodonetsk is extraordinary.
But then comes the inevitable Ukrainian counter offensive and, you know, how that goes depends a lot on the resources, both human and material, left to Ukraine as the summer goes on. But, of course, it also a lot depends on the appetite for the West and the United States, most of all, to prolong this conflict.
Viv and Nick, just super quick—because then I want to open it up for some—we have some questions.
Vivian, we talk about all the kind of U.S. weapons and what they’re doing but—and, obviously, helping the Ukrainians, but in Putin’s Victory Day speech he painted Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a response to the West.
So do the—when you talk to Ukrainians do they feel as if they’re defending almost—because I know we’ve heard the kind of government say that. But do Ukrainians really feel that they’re being helped in their effort against Russia by the West or do they feel, in some ways, that they’re kind of being armed to defend the West against Russia?
SALAMA: They are all very grateful for Western support. But at the end of the day, they say, we are on our own in this fight because they’re not a NATO ally and they believe that because of that one sticking point they have had to go it alone, and this is something that President Zelensky has said both publicly and also in sort of smaller circles that we’ve spoken to him and various other officials, too, and it’s a very sincere outlook, that they do believe that Western support has been critical for them.
I mean, the Ukrainian military of today is not the Ukrainian military of 2014, and that is, largely, due to all the Western support that they have gotten and all the aid that’s been poured into the country.
But at the end of the day, it was just them on the battlefield and they know that and they feel like they’ve just had to reckon with that since day one.
LABOTT: Nick, as Josh said, the Ukrainian—the military is not really going to be able to, you know, get the Russians out of the territory they’ve seized. So this, obviously, suggests we’re going to be in this for a long time.
Obviously, the Europeans and the U.S. are kind of helping the Ukrainians as best they can, but six months, a year, from now do you think the international community is going to be able to kind of stay the course or are we going to get, you know, kind of rumblings from the West or rumblings from the U.S. to settle this with Russia in a way that, you know, the Ukrainians maybe are going to get the short end of the stick here just to solve—to find some kind of political solution?
SCHIFRIN: As Yogi Berra—
LABOTT: No one’s asking for the Crimea back, for instance, outside of Ukraine, really.
SCHIFRIN: Well, the Brits say that the goal is to evict Russia from Crimea and Donbas.
Look, you know, Yogi Berra, what was it, said, prediction is hard, especially about the future. So, yes, that is a key question because it’s going to be very important for the Americans and Europeans to continue to provide and probably elevate their assistance to Ukraine if Ukraine is going to achieve what it wants to achieve and what we claim we want, which is whatever Ukraine wants.
But as we’ve been talking about, this is going to go on for a while because, I think, two factors, and very quickly, there is a gap between goals and abilities on both sides. So Putin, as Josh says, is looking for a generational dagger into Ukraine’s heart—certainly, its military and its relationship with the West. That is not just, you know, achieving some territory in the Donbas.
But his military capacity to overthrow Kyiv is almost nonexistent. Zelensky says that his goal is to recapture territory that Russia has occupied not only since February 25 but before. We think he’s referring to the Donbas, not Crimea. But, again, no military capacity, at least not yet, to do that.
And so the question is at what point, if at any point, will either army decide that there’s diminishing returns, and that may lead to the end of the war. And then, just very quickly, the last point on this is, you know, we talk about what Putin can sell to the Russian people as to victory. You know, Josh mentioned, well, maybe he’ll go to Luhansk and Donetsk and call it victory. But that’s not really what he wants.
That’s the key question. It’s not what Putin can sell to his people. It is what Putin can sell to himself. And as far as anyone can tell, it is not a little bit of eastern Ukraine and southeastern Ukraine. It is Ukraine itself, and because of that, perhaps, more than any factor we’re going to be in this for a long time.
LABOTT: Well, and also, I think, what the Ukrainians can sell to themselves and what the West can sell maybe to the Ukrainians.
Let’s open it up for questions, Kayla. I’m going to throw it over to you. She will—you know, if you have your hand raised she’ll call on you for a question, and I might follow up on some.
OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)
We’ll take the first question from Tom Miller. Tom, please accept the unmute now button.
(No audible response.)
LABOTT: Tom, you have to unmute. No?
OPERATOR: We’ll go to the next question.
Q: Hello? Yeah.
LABOTT: OK. Tom?
Q: I don’t have a question. I think it’s fascinating. Thank you very much. But I don’t have a question. Thank you.
LABOTT: OK. Thanks, Tom. Kayla, next question.
OPERATOR: All right. Our next question will be from William Courtney.
Q: Yes. Thank you. This has been a great discussion.
The Ukrainian narrative internationally seems to have been quite successful relative to the Russian narrative. What are the reasons for this? Is it because Ukraine is, clearly, the victim? Zelensky is eloquent? Ukraine has been more open than Russia with regard to the fighting? What other factors do you think are most important?
LABOTT: Vivian, why don’t you take that one in terms of the international narrative?
SALAMA: Well, there are a number of reasons.
First of all, I mean, we’re seeing in real time what’s happening in Ukraine and just the level of aggression that Russian forces have waged against the country, the atrocities, but also just the kind of lead up to it and the inaccurate argument that the Russian government was putting forward as far as its justification for potential invasion.
You know, this back and forth sort of saber rattling has been going on for some time with Putin saying that NATO was the aggressor and, you know, Ukraine was sort of a playground for them and a number of other things, not to mention the fact that Putin has been talking about Ukraine being part of Russia forever.
And so, you know, a lot of these issues, obviously, came into play. But also I would say that President Zelensky himself has been extremely effective as a lobbyist and spokesman for his government—you know, sort of leveraging his media persona. He has gone out there and been the face of sort of the plea for help and support for Ukraine. He has gone from capital to capital addressing parliaments and Congress, and catered every single message to sort of that audience.
He’s done a really extraordinary job. I mean, he was doing a message to Cannes the other day. He’s done, like, to the Golden Globes or the Oscars—I can’t remember which one. So he’s a big part of that, too.
But I think just the nature of the media today, the fact that we are in real time able to document what’s happening, the fact that now we have satellite imagery to also show what’s happening from the sky, it’s very hard for Russia to counter that to the broader audience.
They can do what they want to do domestically and they can control the message domestically, and they seem to be doing a fairly good job at that. But internationally, obviously, is another story where people outside of Russia have access to so much more information to counter that narrative. So I think that’s—those are the main reasons.
LABOTT: OK, Kayla. Next question.
OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Lawrence Korb.
LABOTT: Lawrence, are you there?
Q: Yes, I am. This has been great. I work at the Center for American Progress and many years ago I worked for President Reagan.
When I was in Moscow in December—I’ve been part of a(n) arms control group with Russians for quite a while—they kept bringing up this thing about the Azov Brigade as, you know, justification. So in addition to protecting the Russians there, it was. But is there any truth or did you see that when you talked to any of the military people there?
LABOTT: Josh, why don’t you take this one?
YAFFA: Yeah. That’s—it’s a difficult question to answer concisely, but I’ll try, because the history of the Azov Battalion is a long and convoluted one. When it started in 2014 there were, certainly, elements of Azov that had far-right sympathies, attracted members from across the European right. Azov has evolved, to a large degree, since 2014. It’s been incorporated into the Ukrainian armed forces proper. It is now a unit in part of the command hierarchy of the Ukrainian armed forces and has attracted a number of fighters who are completely nonideological or, simply, kind of nationalistic in a general way that have no, you know, ties or sympathies to any sort of far-right movements domestic, European, or otherwise.
And what we, certainly, see is since February 24 and especially as the siege of Mariupol and, really, as the siege of Azovstal itself, this factory where the Azov Battalion was based and used as their fortification, the total transformation of the Azov Battalion, at least inside Ukraine.
Whatever questions existed toward Azov in previous years, really, you know, were reduced to almost, you know, nothing when the Ukrainian people saw the kind of heroism and stoicism as a battalion. They’ve really become avatars for the courage and heroism of the Ukrainian military and Ukrainian people writ large. And you’d be find to—it’d be hard to find a single person in Ukraine these days who would still harbor some sort of suspicion or hostility toward Azov and I think that they’ve really, you know, transformed themselves and become these kind of avatars of resistance, stoicism, and heroism in the face of the Russian onslaught.
SALAMA: Elise, if I just can—I am—I embedded with Azov last week. So I would tell you, like, you know, you hear these stories and just, basically—just to very quickly jump off what Josh said, like, these are kids who—they own, like, vegan food stores in Kyiv and, like, you know, they’re veterinarians and there are a lot of lawyers in the group, and they’re nationalists. They’re young. They’re eager to fight and kind of avenge their brothers.
But the minute you start talking to them about this complicated history with the country they are very quick to push back, very insistent that they don’t actually, you know, ascribe to that—those views, and a lot of it is because of the fact that they were young fighters who joined in February and they don’t have a history.
Some of them do. A lot of the fighters who are in Mariupol do, have roots with the battalion. But the vast majority of them are new and just wanting to defend their country, and they believe that Azov as opposed to other battalions is a faster way to the battlefield, apart from the fact that it’s just sort of a—it’s got this image of sort of the—like, the black sheep of the battalions, like, they kind of—they have—they march to the beat of their own drum just in terms of, like, they’re young. They’re nationalistic. They’re all a bunch of—they call themselves soccer hooligans or football hooligans, and that’s sort of their image now.
That’s changed a lot in years. But, you know, they’re an interesting bunch of characters and—but hardly what I had read about them to be prior to meeting them and going out in the field with them.
SCHIFRIN: And, Elise, just to add two obvious points.
You know, in Maidan in 2014, late 2013, I met Azov guys and there were definitely swastikas. There were definitely White power tattoos. So, you know, that history is real. But as Josh and Viv have said, it’s changed.
The second obvious point, we’re going to see trials in Russia of Azov Nazis as justification for this war, and the Ukrainians will say, they’re not fair—they’re not fair. But, you know, we are seeing Russian soldiers in glass boxes in Kyiv in court trials now, and so that will play out over the next couple—
LABOTT: Yeah. I want to—I, actually, want to pick up on that point, Nick, for all of you, and then we’ll finish up with some questions.
Look, to many and most of the international community we’ve seen, you know, various reasons for that, whether it’s the Ukrainian PR machine, whether it’s the, you know, West and U.S. messaging, or just what we’re seeing on the ground, as Vivian said, on the pictures, on the satellites, and everything. It seems like a very black and white in terms of the righteousness of the Ukrainian struggle and the bravery and all.
Talk to me, each one of you, just very quickly about the challenge of keeping the Ukrainians accountable, too, because it’s, obviously, nothing compared to the numbers of stories about Russian atrocities but there are examples of Ukrainian violations.
The U.N. has tapped a few brigades for torturing detainees, for instance, and you have to call them out and keep them accountable. But, obviously, that’s very unpopular. I’m not sure people will really want to hear it. They might feel that the Ukrainian struggle is justified no matter what the means because of the Russians.
But at the same time, the Ukrainians are fighting for the democratic values that would hold them to a different standard.
So, Josh, why don’t you start, just a couple of words on that?
YAFFA: Yeah. I don’t really have much to add other than that, of course, when and where there’s any evidence or suggestion that Ukrainian forces in the prosecution of the defense of their country are, for example, you know, breaking the laws of war, committing war crimes. They absolutely should be held accountable. You know, no one gets a free pass during wartime.
But that said, you know, just the dynamic at play in this conflict is so clear, that Ukraine was invaded on February 24, a sovereign country with no real understandable justification or reason. I mean, not that there necessarily could be one. But to get back to this idea about narrative, you know, Russia—Putin, personally, has presented such a kind of muddled and, at times, contradictory explanation for what Russia is doing there, right.
Is it about Ukraine? Is it about Ukrainian history? Is it about NATO? Is Ukraine—you know, is he fighting Ukrainian Nazis? Is he fighting NATO countries via Ukraine? You know, it’s a really—you get a really convoluted story from the Russian side about what it’s doing in Ukraine and why it launched this invasion, and that leaves Ukraine, I think, in this really glaring way that is, indeed, black and white—the victim nation in a very clear-cut war of aggression.
So that, certainly, does affect perceptions. But in terms of actual accountability, I think there’s sort of—there should be no question about that and I don’t think that there necessarily, you know, will be if and when evidence, you know, might emerge of situations that need to be investigated on the Ukrainian side.
I don’t see a kind of lack of willingness to do that even though, you know, the preponderance of violations, whether it’s in launching this war on February 24 in the first place or committing, you know, extrajudicial executions, rapes, and other crimes in places like Bucha and Irpin, that’s just—really does seem to be an unambiguously Russian problem and one that Russia should be held accountable.
SALAMA: Yeah. I just—I think that there, at this point, is going to be a sense of trying to reckon with their emotional—the emotional backlash that’s happened as a result of this conflict. And, you know, Nick and I had traveled to Brussels with Secretary Blinken a few weeks ago now before we both traveled and the Ukrainian Foreign Minister Kuleba was there and he was asked about the attacks on Ukrainian—the attacks by Ukrainian soldiers, and he gave a very emotional answer. He got really choked up when he talked about it.
He said, you know, we understand that these reports are coming out and we do take them very seriously. But how would you feel if someone rapes your child or rapes your wife or—you know, and he started to talk about a friend who was raped multiple times, allegedly, by Russian forces, and I mean, his voice was trembling as he spoke and this is sort of the emotional factor that’s there.
And on the one hand it’s, obviously, very compelling. But on the other hand, as journalists, you know, we do have to take these things into consideration. We do have to flag them when they do happen.
So this is, obviously, a reality and it’s something that’s very common, unfortunately, in times of war. But it’s not something that should be overlooked regardless of whether they’re the victim or not.
SCHIFRIN: You report without fear or favor. So we will, obviously, continue to do so. But let’s call a spade a spade. There are not a lot of journalists spending a lot of time investigating this. So we’ll see. We’ll see if there’s more evidence that emerges. We’ll see if journalists can find the time in their busy schedules covering Russian aggression to do it. I’m just kind of admitting that, that, at least, I don’t see a lot of journalists focusing on that.
Point number two. There will be war crimes trials in Kyiv in perpetuity. The legal scholars I talk to say that it’s not the best legal option. The crime scene is a battlefield. It’s just not great for collection. But what it does offer is a level of healing. It does psychologically provide a little bit of closure and so, actually, there are legal scholars encouraging this kind of action.
We will see more of it, and like I said, it will, in part, lead to Russia having its own trials, and so we’ll be talking, I think, more in the coming weeks about Nazis in the Ukrainian military and also Ukrainian war crimes, which I’m sure Russia will create, whether fictionalized or not.
And then the last point that I’ll make is for those of us who covered the last twenty years of insurgencies, counterinsurgencies, trying to explain to our grandparents and parents which side the Afghans are on, which side Iraqis are on, let alone before you get to Somalia and Yemen, this, in my opinion, is the closest thing that our generation of correspondents have come to a black and white war. It’s not black and white but, you know, Viv called it state on state earlier in the conversation.
But it is a remarkably clear narrative of Russian aggression and Ukraine fighting back, and I believe that’s why the reaction to the journalism has been incredibly expansive, as judged by the level of interest, at least, and why European countries have been able to make these policy shifts.
So I do think that that plays into our knowledge and our coverage of this moment just how relatively clear this narrative is. And that doesn’t mean we don’t cover the Ukrainian side as well but that does, I think, provide the frame for a lot of our coverage.
LABOTT: Kayla, I think we have time for one or two more questions.
OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Mahesh Kotecha.
Q: Thank you very much. It’s a privilege to hear such well-informed discussion.
My question, notwithstanding Yogi Berra, is regarding the end game. How much—how do you assess the willingness, the will, of the Ukrainian people to support the aims of Zelensky to remove Russia entirely from even Crimea?
And on the other hand, is there any credence to the stories that one hears from time to time about tremors in the hands of Putin and about his—about coups in the works and the like, which may be wishful thinking? But how do you assess the degree to which this may just become a grueling, long, drawn-out affair and—
LABOTT: Got it. Got it.
Let’s—thanks for your question. I just want to—we have about a minute or two left. So I just want to ask each panelist to kind of—you know, that’s a great way to close with those closing thoughts. Just, you know—
SCHIFRIN: A flash round?
LABOTT: A flash round. A couple of words about, you know, where—you know, what is the end game. Josh had said earlier it’s impossible to predict.
Nick, you know, Yogi Berra said it’s impossible to predict. But if—you know, given what you’ve seen on the ground, just a couple of words of how—where you see this going, at least in the short term.
SCHIFRIN: You know, very briefly, Ukrainian support—Ukrainian officials cite this poll that just got released, I guess. Eighty percent of Ukraine—I have no idea how reliable it is—support Zelensky’s maximalist war aims. Even if that’s not true, I think, anecdotally, you’ve heard from all of us the people we are talking to, certainly, support those maximalist war aims.
Putin—the very top of the U.S. intelligence community, I can tell you, does not believe that there is a great threat to Vladimir Putin regardless of how long and difficult this gets and regardless of the fact that some elites have decided that this is a bad idea.
And so, therefore, your third point, grueling war, I think that’s what we’re in for. Again, the maximalist aims on both sides do not match the ability to achieve them and so we’re in this until both sides believe that there’s lack of outcome and that’s just not happening anytime soon, I don’t think.
SALAMA: Just long and drawn out. I see we’re running out of time. It’s going to be long and drawn out, and the question here in Washington, where I’m sitting today, is whether or not the momentum continues to really help. We’re going to go into a midterm election followed by a presidential election cycle, and a lot of times we have the tendency to get distracted as a nation when we have domestic priorities, obviously.
So that’ll, really, be the question is whether or not Ukraine’s allies can sustain this level of support as this becomes a very prolonged war.
LABOTT: Josh, we also have to let you get your flight. So does this come down to the Ukrainians’ resilience and will to keep fighting, the international community, or Putin or a combination of all those?
YAFFA: Yes to all of that. I think, continuing what Vivian and Nick said, at the moment both sides see an advantage in continuing to fight. Ukrainians think that they, with time and especially with Western weapons, can gain the upper hand and win the war of attrition.
Russia, clearly, with its, you know, scorched earth artillery campaign in the east, thinks that it, with time, has the military advantage if it continues with these, you know, wholesale bombings of Ukrainian cities and troop positions, that it can eke out some territorial gains that it can turn into strategic gains as it defines them.
So both—for right now, both sides think that there’s more to be gained by continuing the fight than stopping it and that’s why we’re not really seeing active negotiations or an interest even in them on both sides, and that’s why I think the next phase of this war will be determined by what happens in the military balance of power, right—where does the advantage actually shift.
Right now, both sides think that they have the advantage, that the wind is behind their backs militarily. But will that be the case in two or three months? You know, how will Western weapons affect that calculus? You know, how will Russia’s warfighting ability affect that calculus? And so then, I think, we’ll see, potentially, a shift in calculation and appetite on both sides.
But for now, both sides are in it to win it and think that they can.
LABOTT: OK. Obviously, we’re getting this kind of full picture of what’s going on on the ground because of the work of journalists like we’ve heard from today. And we’ll continue to rely on your reporting as (what ?) looks like it’s going to be a long and protracted war, and we’ll have this conversation again.
Thank you to Nick, Josh, and Vivian. And thank you to the Council and all of you for joining us. Remember, this meeting was on the record and will be posted on the CFR website.
Kayla, back to you.
This is an uncorrected transcript.