Today we'll be getting a behind-the-scenes look at what it's like to be covering the war in Ukraine from two veteran war correspondents who have been on the ground for several weeks, Holly Williams of CBS News and Alex Marquardt of CNN.
But first, here's a quick look at the latest developments on this seventh day of war...
On the ground: Kyiv is bracing for a siege as Russian troops move in closer and continue to target civilian buildings in the capital and the second-largest city of Kharkiv. Video captured a deadly explosion at the Kharkiv regional state administration building that left at least 10 people dead. That came as the Russians took aim at Kyiv’s main radio and television tower, killing five and forcing television stations off the air. Ukrainian President Volodmyr Zelensky is accusing the Russians of war crimes.
In the south: Russia claims its forces have captured Kherson, a city in Ukraine’s south. The mayor of Kherson says the city has not fallen but Russian troops have it surrounded.
Ukrainian death toll: The United Nations says at least 136 civilians have been killed since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began. Thirteen children are believed to be among the dead. A spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said the real death toll is likely to be much higher. Figures released by Ukraine's government suggest as many as 352 civilians are dead and 1,684 injured.
Russian death toll: Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky said nearly 6,000 Russians had been killed since the invasion started. That number has not been independently verified. He says Putin wants to "erase our history, erase our country, erase us all."
Refugee Crisis: The UN says 660,000 refugees have already fled the country with potentially millions more still trying to escape the conflict.
SOTU: President Biden predicted the invasion of Ukraine would “leave Russia weaker and the world stronger” during his State of the Union Address Tuesday night. He said this war was a battle between between tyranny and freedom. He committed to provide Ukraine with enough weaponry, supplies and humanitarian assistance to “fight for freedom.”
Powerful Moment: Biden also honored the Ukrainian Ambassador to the US as a special guest during the speech as he announced that the US plans to bar Russian planes from American airspace and a new Justice Department effort to seize the assets (homes, yachts & jets) of Putin-allied oligarchs and government officials.
Gas prices: The President announced that the US and its allies will release 60 million barrels from their oil reserves-- including 30 million from the US alone-- to try to prevent gas prices from spiking even higher in the wake of the Russian invasion and sanctions. (60 barrels of oil amounts to 12 days worth of Russian oil exports. And markets didn't seem impressed, in fact, oil prices rose yesterday.)
Now to our conversation with Holly Williams and Alex Marquardt...
Holly Williams is a CBS News Foreign Correspondent who has covered Ukraine extensively over the course of the past decade including over the past few months. The Istanbul-based correspondent has received multiple awards for her war reporting including the Edward R. Murrow award for her coverage of ISIS in 2015. She was also based in Beijing earlier in her career.
Alex Marquardt is a CNN Senior National Security Correspondent. Marquardt spent most of the past decade as a foreign correspondent for ABC News based in Moscow, Jerusalem, Beirut and London. During that time, he was on the front lines of the wars and uprisings in the Middle East, and was on the ground in Gaza in 2012 and 2014 during the wars with Israel.
Marquardt joined us from Kyiv, Ukraine and Williams joined us from Bucharest, Romania after spending several weeks inside Ukraine. We spoke with both on Monday evening 2/28.
They have incredible insight on the mood in Ukraine and how civilians are viewing this conflict. We also talked about what it's like to cover a war in the age of social media and misinformation, and what they're doing to stay safe. A huge thank you to both for taking the time to talk with us.
**You're receiving this special Wednesday newsletter because you're a paid subscriber of Mo News. The full video of the interviews is embedded below as well as posted to our Facebook group. We hope you enjoy.**
Full interviews with both correspondents are embedded above. Below are some of the highlights from our conversation, edited for clarity.
What are you hearing from regular Ukrainians, both now and before the invasion?
Alex Marquardt: It was really remarkable to see the change because they-- almost to a man and woman-- insisted to me, this is not going to happen. We're not worried about this. There was zero panic that I saw on the surface level, you know, you talk to people and they say, 'Yeah, we're worried. Yeah, we're concerned,' But there was also a very prominent attitude, especially in the east, of we have been living next to a frontline for eight years. We are used to Russian threats. We saw Russia invade our country and steal land in Crimea in 2014. And they didn't necessarily buy it. And they said, if it happens, we're going to fight. This is not the Ukraine of 2014. We are stronger, we're more patriotic, our military is stronger. So then the invasion happens. And sure enough, you have all these people signing up to what are called the territorial defenses, which is basically just civilians who are given guns and allowed to go fight and sort of ragtag militia type things. Lots of people have talked about this, comparing this to David and Goliath, and it's perfectly apt.
Holly Williams: It's just very strange to see a country go from being, you know, a fairly calm place to suddenly being a war zone. Not that Ukraine didn't have its challenges. They've had a war against Russian backed separatists out east for years. People have a connection with that. They know people who are fighting out there, they've lost family members out there, they've been dealing with, with Russian aggression for many years, you know, Russia already invaded, invaded Ukraine, in Crimea, and in 2014, but for the most part, people were living very calm, peaceful existences. And most people we spoke to seem to have a very clear conception of where their country should go what they wanted their country to be. And a lot of Ukrainians were very worried about the situation, but also many of them said, we don't think it's a very big possibility that the Russians are going to invade, you know, it's a possibility, we're anxious about it. But we're hoping this all comes to nothing. So it's a very strange experience seeing a country go from people living their normal lives to suddenly living in a war zone and not knowing what their future is going to be.
How do Ukrainians feel about the overwhelming support from around the world in terms of protests? And are they also frustrated that the US and Europe haven't done more?
Alex Marquardt: I think that, at least at an official level, Ukraine's been really frustrated that NATO obviously hasn't welcomed them with open arms. You saw the EU say that they're ready to welcome Ukraine in, so that's obviously gonna make a lot of people happy. You talk to Ukrainians, many will disagree, but a lot say, we feel much closer to the West, we feel much closer to the European Union than to Russia and we should be part of the EU. I'm sure that the people here are really bolstered by what they're seeing from abroad, that it's very encouraging. But you also have to imagine that they're very focused on on the matter at hand. You've got families trying to get out by the thousands. Those scenes from the borders, not just not just with Poland, but with Slovakia, with Hungary with Moldova -- people are just trying to get out in droves. And then often times, fathers are dropping their families at the border and turning right back around and fighting. So we've seen some really heartbreaking scenes at the border crossings. There's a lot of fear here. But it is remarkable to see the world turning against Putin to try to get him to pull out.
Holly Williams: They're very happy that there's been of outpouring of support. But from the perspective of at least some Ukrainians, there's the feeling, you know, why can't you do more for us? I think other Ukrainians would realize the thinking behind that, from the perspective of the US and its allies, that getting involved militarily would turn this conflict into something potentially even more dangerous and explosive.
What have you learned about the Ukrainian people?
Holly Williams: I have enormous admiration for their stoicism and determination. It's pretty clear I think that actually the impact of Russian aggression on Ukraine has been to clarify for many Ukrainian people what they actually want for their country and what they don't want. And I'm just, I'm just so fearful for them. We've, we've got to know a lot of people in Ukraine. And we spent a lot of time on the on the frontline out east and spent time with soldiers out there and, and they're young men and women. And they're obviously, most civilians are in the firing line as well, seemingly in Ukraine. But I wonder what's happened to a lot of those soldiers that we that we've spent time with.
How do you ensure your own personal safety on the ground in Ukraine right now?
Alex Marquardt: I'm in an international hotel in downtown Kyiv. I've covered a bunch of wars, as you know -- most in Gaza. And when I was staying there, what we would do is we would give the Israelis our coordinates, we'd let them know where we were, and their Israelis were very good at staying away from hitting the hotels. We don't have a line into the Russians like that. As far as I know, maybe people above my pay grade have done that. But I don't know that.
We as an organization have told people again, if you're feeling at all uncomfortable, if you are on the fence, you should probably get out. Whether that means going to the Lviv, which is in the western part of Ukraine, or just going somewhere else. We are operating under an understanding that, again, the city is going to get hit repeatedly by the Russians, but also get encircled. And there there could be some, some dark days ahead. In terms of personal security, it's different from person to person, and it's different from day to day. I mean, frankly, my biggest concern right now, today, or tomorrow, even if I went out is not running into Russians necessarily. It'd be running into some fairly jumpy Ukrainians at checkpoints, you know, an 18 year old kid who just got a gun for the first time and signed up to these reservists or militias. I think that's a much bigger security risk right now. I don't believe that Russia wants to come in here and kill everybody. I was in Crimea when Russia invaded in 2014. They didn't fire a shot. I think they have designs on key, they want to control it, they want to topple the government. If I were a government minister right now I'd be very worried, but I don't fear the Russians if I run into them. I do fear, however, that the longer Ukrainians push back, the longer this city holds out, the more brutal the Russian military could get, and that Putin may push them harder and harder.
Holly Williams:. I'm very lucky, I work with amazing teams of people that I really trust. And we spend a lot of time thinking about how we're going to do things, planning about how we're going to do things so that we can...take our audience as close as possible to what's happening. So they can get a real sense of what it's like there, what it feels to be like there. But the last thing we want to do is be killed or injured.
What's the most important thing Americans should know to better understand the situation in Ukraine?
Alex Marquardt: On a very immediate level, understand geography. Every time I do a live shot, I feel like I'm a geography teacher. And this is why on CNN, you're seeing maps all the tim because it's really, really important to understand, first of all, the size of Ukraine, which is the size of Texas, it's the second biggest country in Europe after Russia. You need to see that Russia is on the eastern border, you need to see the Belarus is right above Kyiv, and you need to understand where the Sea of Azov and Black Sea are.
The Ministry of Defense here the other day put out instructions or requests for citizens to put together Molotov cocktails to throw at approaching Russian troops. Can you imagine if the US was being attacked, and the Pentagon was saying, 'Hey guys, can you put together, can you can you assemble Molotov cocktails?' I mean, that's the level of desperation, that is the level of fear that that this country has, because of the huge force that Russia is coming at them with? So all I would say is, imagine if you're an American, and the country below or above you, both huge countries are assembling their forces for an attack?
And can't you understand how terrifying that would be? You just need to have a bit of imagination and put yourself in someone else's shoes, because this is very, very hard to believe that in these times, that a country can just up and decide to invade another country for absolutely no reason. Just try to imagine a huge neighbor coming at you and what you would do to help people who are who are being attacked.
Holly Williams: That's such a good question. I guess if you can do a little bit of reading about what happened in 2014 when Ukrainians took to the streets with also with this very clear idea about 'we don't see our future with Moscow. We see our future with the West.' They ultimately toppled a pro-Moscow leader. And since then Ukraine has gone in a very different direction. So I think, I guess, trying to understand that sort of recent period of history is useful.
How has the war has changed Ukrainians views on Russia?
Alex Marquardt: I think you kind of have gradients where if you go from east to west, it's most Russian to least Russian. What is clear is there is a very strong sense of patriotism. And a lot of that comes from 2014, when Russia invaded the first time or at least the first time in this century. And so in a sense, Putin kind of shot himself in the foot because he's trying to bring Ukraine closer to him, but he's actually driving them away. So you've got, especially among younger people, people who are arguing that they feel more European, there's been a spike in pride of the national language. I mean, Ukrainians all speak Ukrainian and Russian, and where before they might have started, they might have just defaulted to Russian in a conversation, now they take pride and pleasure and speaking their own national language.
And I definitely believe that there are a lot of people, particularly in eastern Ukraine who say, I'm an ethnic Russian, I feel Russian I should be part of Russia, especially in Crimea. But at the same time, when you hear Putin, you know, giving a long, crazy speech about how Ukraine is not a country, and talking about their leaders is drug addicts and Nazis, Ukrainians are just like, we don't want to be part of that. And they look at Russia as the past. I mean, it's a country that has a faltering economy. There's nothing to get excited about in terms of belonging to Russia, and that's why I think you're seeing so many Ukrainians saying, 'Hey, we're, we're part of Europe. We want to look to the West.'
Putin seems to be taking riskier moves lately. Does it feel like something has changed?
Holly Williams: It's interesting, isn't it? Because I think in the past, we've seen the sort of things that Vladimir Putin has embarked upon involve taking small bites out of neighboring countries. And a lot of the kind of military things that he's got involved in have been, perhaps lower risk, lower cost, and often with, often with a strong element of kind of deniability. And I think that's not really the case here. It seems like it seems like a change, for Vladimir Putin. I don't have any insight into that. Has something happened with him personally? I don't know. But I've certainly heard Ukrainians express their fear that he's not rational. And you can imagine how concerning that is for a Ukrainian. This is someone you're at war with, and they're fearful that he's not rational.
When it comes to wars, getting at the truth, between the spin, and now social media videos, etc, is challenging. How do you approach finding truth when there's so much fog?
Holly Williams: Well, it's hard for a start, right, I think any journalist has to has to acknowledge that, I think the the best thing you can report as a journalist that's in the field is what you're seeing, and what you're hearing, not trying to give people some fundamental truth about what's happening in the world. But saying, I was here today. And I saw this transpire. And I spoke to these people. And that's, and that's what they told me, you know, giving people back in the US a sense of what it is like, what it's like to be there. And of course, look, there are issues with social media videos, and we spend a lot of time trying to authenticate them, trying to geo locate them trying to make, make sure that they are what we think they are before we ever put them on air. But I think in any event, the best reporting is somewhere where you actually you actually, as a reporter, you take people somewhere, yourself.
** You're receiving this special Wednesday newsletter because you're a paid subscriber of Mo News. Please let us know if there are any topics you'd like us to cover. **
And again, a huge thank you to Holly Williams and Alex Marquardt, who are reporting 24/7 in the war zone, for taking the time to talk to us.
[Top Banner Photo Credit: SERGEY BOBOK/AFP via Getty Images]