How do we understand the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine beyond the daily headlines? What are the far-reaching consequences for liberal democracies around the world? How do we assess this humanitarian crisis against others happening at the same time?
On Wednesday March 23, 2022, Pulitzer Center Executive Director Jon Sawyer was joined by PBS NewsHour special correspondent and grantee Nick Schifrin for a conversation on the conflict in Ukraine, following Schifrin's return from reporting in Mariupol.
The PBS NewsHour's ongoing coverage of the war in Ukraine is supported by the Pulitzer Center. To support ongoing, in-depth investigative reporting in Ukraine and surrounding countries, make a gift to the Pulitzer Center today.
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Jon Sawyer: Hello everyone, I'm Jon Sawyer, I'm glad everybody's here. We're trying something new with Twitter Spaces for the Pulitzer Center. We very much appreciate all of you joining us to be part of this conversation. We've all been following the events in Ukraine very closely, I know. It's important to understand the broader context and the impact of this crisis beyond the daily headlines. I want to say this a bit about the role of the Pulitzer Center in covering Ukraine and all the things surrounding it. We're eager to support freelance and staff journalists on pursuing underreported stories related to the Ukraine invasion. We've supported dozens of reporting projects in Ukraine over the years, from the eight-year stalemate and the secessionist Donbas region, to the 2019 election of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Beyond the day-to-day headlines, we've supported reporting from neighboring countries, resulting refugee crisis, authoritarianism, and much more. I want to emphasize the role of freelancers in covering the story and the importance of safety; that we want to encourage as much reporting as possible, as safely as possible, as original as possible. And I hope that those of you listening who want to know more, will visit pulitzercenter.org/ukraine.
I'd also like to highlight the Pulitzer Center's ongoing partnership with NewsHour on sustained reporting, not just in Ukraine, but around the world. Also past point to some of the projects that we've done together, including the reporting last summer on the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. And lastly, most important for today, I'd like to introduce Nick Schifrin. PBS NewsHour special correspondent, who has worked with the Pulitzer Center on multiple in-depth NewsHour projects, among them his to in 2016 reporting from Ukraine and the Baltics, his 2019 series on China, and the multipart Peabody Award-winning series in 2017, on Putin's Russia. He is just back from several weeks of reporting on the ground in Ukraine and continues to help lead NewsHour's coverage from here in Washington. So Nick, welcome. There's a lot going on. I will jump right in. The president, of course, is headed today to Europe. Three summits tomorrow. We're hearing announcements from NATO today of four battleship groups moving to the east. More talk of military aid, increased sanctions, talks about extending into the energy sector. You got Putin's top spokesman last night refused to rule out the use of nuclear weapons. How do you assess the situation nearly four weeks in?
Nick Schifrin: Jon, thanks so much for having me. And thanks to the Pulitzer Center, which has always been such an extraordinary institution supporting not only my work at NewsHour, but so many other journalists' work around the world and creating the kind of understanding and empathy that the journalist, those of us – and I can see some friends on this call already – try and bring to an American audience around the world. So thank you, guys, for everything. So I guess let's start with what I would call the most significant meetings of a U.S. president with his European allies in years, if not decades.
You have both a NATO summit, all 30 heads of government are state tomorrow followed by a G7 meeting, followed by a European Commission meeting that President Biden will, will attend. And I think the leading aspects are some more of what we seen, more sanctions and such. So let's, let's zoom into what Jens Stoltenberg announced just about an hour ago, which was what he called the doubling of battle groups to the eastern flank. As you know, and as I think a lot of people on this call know, NATO created battle groups in four countries after Russia's first invasion of Ukraine, both the invasion and annexation of Crimea, and then the invasion of of conventional troops into eastern Ukraine in the Donbas in addition to supporting separatists there. And those battle groups after 2014 were created in the Baltics, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. And so now, Stoltenberg is announcing that there will be NATO battle groups to Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and Slovakia. So we are taking the focus from northeastern Europe and shifting it to southeastern Europe.
I had an event with the Atlantic Council just a little while ago, Julie Smith, Ambassador Julianne Smith, Ambassador to NATO. And she confirmed that these would be more than just taking the national soldiers of those four countries and putting them under the NATO hat. This would actually be reinforcing these countries with NATO soldiers, with NATO service members, and NATO equipment. And so I think the reason that we're gonna see this, as one of the leading announcements this week, is that, you know, the US and NATO has successfully created what they called tripwire forces in the northeast, obviously, nowhere near the amount of troops that Russia could could mass on the Baltic borders. But they want to create tripwires in the southeast that they felt that the countries around the Black Sea are particularly vulnerable, after watching what Russia has done to Ukraine, and want to reinforce that part of Europe. So we could talk more about that. But I certainly think that that's one of the leading efforts.
And you mentioned, one of the others. These threats, this language, referring to nuclear weapons, these false flags that Russia is creating, referring to chemical weapons. On the latter, unfortunately, we have seen Russia do this in the past, they have facilitated the use of chemical weapons in Syria. And they've used chemical weapons in NATO territory in the United Kingdom against a perceived enemy of the Kremlin. And so there is great concern and the president this morning, reiterated, when asked Yes, I am concerned about chemical weapons use in Ukraine. And the nuclear unfortunately, again, that is the doctrine of the Russian military. We call it escalate to de-escalate. That's not the phrase they use, but effectively Gerasimov, the their equivalent of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have written extensively about the use of tactical nuclear weapons, battlefield nuclear weapons. One day, someone will convince me that that phrase actually makes any sense. But the use of nuclear weapons on a battlefield in order to escalate and certainly the U.S. officials I talked to are very concerned about that. And Peskov's comments overnight, refusing to rule that out is yet another concern about that.
Jon Sawyer: Great, thanks, Nick. Tell us how it looks right now from the Russian side. What are we seeing in terms of shifting Russian tactics, shifting Russian goals based on what's happened so far?
Nick Schifrin: So now that I'm back, the old saying the person who knows the least about the war is the frontline soldier. I kind of feel like that, as journalists do, that when you're in Ukraine, you really just tell the plight of the people who are right in front of you. Even though at that NewsHour, we certainly try and give the content. But now that I'm back, I'm able to have some longer conversations with some more senior people here in Washington. And what they say actually is that they have not seen evidence that the Russian goals have changed. And so what that means is that the U.S. assessment remains that the Kremlin is after regime change in Kyiv, the Kremlin is after capturing the capital of Ukraine, and creating a kind of rump state, or at least a pliant state, on its border. That's the assessment.
On the ground, I think everybody who's been there has been reporting along the same lines. And we do see this when talking about Russian tactics. The Russian military, once again, has failed to prove that it is in army capable of quick maneuvers, that's the word that we would use, meaning it can fight on the run, it can fight in a coordinated way across hundreds of miles. It just is proving that it can, once again, the supply line stories that we all know, are evidence of that.
And so what we are seeing tactically, is the use of more long range fires. So I think over 1,200 missiles fired from within Russia, into Ukraine, and also obviously, artillery fired within Ukraine. And unfortunately, we've seen this as part of the Russian playbook for two decades, whether in Chechnya, whether in Syria, these are essentially designed to break the spirit of a population by decimating civilian areas, there is no other way to describe it. These are indiscriminate shelling of residential neighborhoods, and very discriminate shelling, at particular, civilian targets. And nowhere we seen this more than Mariupol. It is. It is a horror, it is an absolute humanitarian crisis and catastrophe that has happened in the hundreds of thousands of people. And tactically it does suggest that Russia cannot achieve some of the maximalist war aims that it set out, even if the kind of strategic assessments that's the same.
So I think what we're seeing is Russian troops moving into the south, and they're going to create a landbridge, past Crimea toward Odessa, depending on whether they can see as Mykolaiv which is the city is 80 miles east of Odessa, and then a strangling of Kyiv, and whether that precedes an actual invasion of Kyiv, or whether Russia just tries to use that kind of control of Ukraine and southern coast and encircling of Kiev to extract political concessions. We don't know.
Jon Sawyer: I think your mention of Syria in Chechnya are really appropriate, Nick. Because, of course, that did not end well for the people of those two countries in terms of what they suffered. And there's been a lot of emphasis in the coverage the last few weeks on the heroic performance of the Ukrainian military and people, their defiance, the resistance, that any sign of sort of pushing the Russians back has gotten a lot of attention. But I think what I'm hearing from you is that there is a kind of relentlessness to what's going on with the Russians and determination to use whatever tactics are required to keep this going. So the talk kind of a quick victory on the other side of Ukraine is probably naive, perhaps.
Nick Schifrin: Yeah, the U.S. helped set the expectations for this war by revealing so much of what they say were Russian war aims. And they said the Russian war aims were regime change. And frankly, Putin's rhetoric, pretty much backed that up. And so anything less than that will be seen as a failure. But the Russians can sit where they are, for a long time, you know, and U.S. officials do say that – I mean, months – they can sit where they are for months, and just pummel some of these cities – Mariupol, Kharkiv, Sumi, these will become, I fear, chapters in histories of a book that started with Grozny and frankly started a lot longer before when the Soviets used to do this, but under the Russian context, started with Grozny, and we mentioned Aleppo as well. A historian who was in Mariupol, I interviewed him the other day after he, after he got out and he brought up – I didn't bring it up – he brought up Guernica. He brought up Stalingrad. He brought up Aleppo. The willingness to destroy that which Russia claims to be protecting is extraordinary. And remember, are you pull a Russian-speaking study, Kharkiv, a Russian-speaking city, cities that in 2014 had a little bit of pro-Russian sentiment. The Russian military is now destroying these cities.
Jon Sawyer: Yeah, you mentioned that the Russians can sit where they are for months. And for years, I mean, I remember being in trans to Nestor back in the 90s and South Acetaia, and then going to Karbach in the early mid 2000s, they play a long game. And there is a consistency to what they're after and what they're willing to tolerate. I think to get there. All that said, though, there, I think we all can agree that what Zelenskyy has done to rally the Ukrainian people, that both within Ukraine and outside, the the resistance to the Russians is much greater, I think, than a lot of us expected. I don't know if you're in that camp or not.
Nick Schifrin: I think not only that, has Zelenskyy created a rallying cry for his own military. But I think Zelenskyy has done something that perhaps would have happened regardless because of what Putin has done. But you know, when you listen to the Germans talk about this war, when you listen to, frankly, journalists talk about this war and compare it to Syria, compare it to Iraq, compare it to Yemen, compare it to the horrors of the last 20 years, it has become much more black and white than any conflict that we have covered. And what I mean by that is, there is a country that is big, and invading a country that is small and defending its very right to live.
And that David and Goliath idea is something that the mayor of Lviv gave me a long speech on, which was I thought really memorable at the time. A few weeks ago, the ambassador, Ukraine's ambassador to the U.S., has picked up on talking about David and Goliath and the the use of the rhetoric that Zelenskyy and his team has created. Talking to the Americans about not I have a dream, but I have a need, talking to the Europeans and saying, tear down this wall between democracy and autocracy, talking today to Japan and talking about the tsunami that has hit his country, Ukraine. Their ability to tap into the audience's that he has spoken to, and the nature of what Putin is saying and doing has made this war a moral one, a black and white one, and that has helped allow some of the political decisions that have come, especially out of Brussels, especially out of Berlin, that is really a generational shift in Europe. And so I think we have not only Putin's actions, ironically, to thank for uniting NATO in the west and giving the U.S. and NATO this sense of responsibility today. But the, the moral authority that Zelenskyy has helped some and also helps lead to these political decisions as well.
Jon Sawyer: That unity, how is that going to look when we're three or four months into 2, 3, 4 million refugees? I mean, the number, what is it, 300,000 In Warsaw alone? I mean, it dwarfs what we saw in 2015. And in 2015, that wave of migration, refugees, that led to nationalist authoritarian sentiment and power, people coming into power all over Europe and the United States. So, are we more positioned to respond and to handle that this time? And then on top of that, the whole energy thing? That whether we choose to impose sanctions and and take the punishment ourselves for that the consequences, or whether Putin exercise, uses that as a weapon against us?
Nick Schifrin: Yeah, no, I think those are really important questions, Jon. I've certainly the the weaponization of what Russia does, and obviously, he's more than capable and willing to weaponize pretty much anything the West does, but I think you're absolutely right. So let's think about the scale, and then the longevity, right. So I think Syria, the number of refugees, people on this call I know work on this can correct me, I think it's something like 13 million or so. So, about six and a half, 7 million refugees, six to seven IDPs internally displaced about 13 million – you know, well over half the country's population. We are not there. In Ukraine, we're about 10 million, I think between refugees and IDPs, according to the UN, in a country of 43 million, so we're about one quarter. But the speed with which the number of refugees, the number of IDPs have spiked in Ukraine dwarfs Syria by quite a lot. It took us years to get to these numbers in Syria.
And so you are seeing the natural, immediate response. And as we've talked about, coordinated and unified, and kind of, frankly, revitalized response. Will that last? That's a very, very good question. You heard Jake Sullivan specifically today is yesterday say that President Biden is going to Europe in order to make sure that the unity remains, in order to make sure that to deliver the message that we I think his words were, we will stay at this as long as it takes. The U.S. knows that this could be months, if not years. Is Europe ready to do this? We'll see. Berlin has come a long way. But Olaf Scholz, the chancellor today, said, "Look, you know, we don't think that it's necessary to to ban all Russian oil and gas right now." You know, there is resistance still in the heart of Europe, to some of these penalties that people on the Hill here are calling for, and certainly Ukraine is calling for. And so we will see how that resilience, whether that unity can have resilience over the months and years. And yes, you point to one of the soft spots, the reliance of Russian oil and gas in Europe has been immense. And it's something that the administration is working on, something that President Biden has already talked about today and yesterday, and we'll talk about tomorrow. But these are sovereign decisions at a moment when inflation already in Europe is high, at a moment when you know, all politics are local and you have to be concerned about your own citizens' pocketbooks. And that will drive up prices. So you know, it's the question of whether governments are willing to convince their citizens to sacrifice some of their their incomes in order to pay higher prices in order to fight the Russians.
Jon Sawyer: Let me step back a moment, Nick, and get you to share with us your perspective, sort of larger view in terms of how you see this playing out geopolitically in the months and years ahead. I mean, we did big projects together with NewsHour, and you on both Russia and China – big, multipart fabulous series – to give us a sense of what was going on in those two countries. And there's been a lot of talk in recent years about the U.S. pivoting to Asia, sort of the big competition being with China. There wasn't a lot of talk or expectations if we'd be in a situation where we're suddenly we were driving, the Russians were basically going to be closer and closer to China. And how do you see how China's responded to this so far, to the to the crisis in Ukraine, what the implications are for the China-Russia relationship, and the implications for China and the U.S. and China in the West?
Nick Schifrin: What was it that Obama told Mitt Romney in 2012? When Romney said, Russia is the number one threat? And Obama said, yeah, the 90s call they want their foreign policy back or something? Look, I mean, from the very top of the U.S. government has been dismissive of Russia's capacity to create havoc for a while, and certainly has desired, you know, really since I would argue Ash Carter gave a speech in 2014, 2015 – the pivot to Asia has been the top of the Pentagon's list for like, seven years now. So, you know, we're going on the third administration of the failed pivot. You know, the Moscow-Beijing question, I think is, is going to be one of the most interesting ones that come out of this. And everyone I talked to in the U.S. government, who describes to me the nature of Moscow's request to Beijing now, says that it's tactical. Hey, you know, we agreed right before the Olympics that our Alliance had, quote, no limits, and so we need some cash. We need some drones. We need some backfills of equipment that we can use that that you guys have.
But the bigger question is how far that goes? Because it's one thing to ask for money, and some drones, and maybe even just a few weapons, and it's another thing for Moscow to realize that in 10 years, they will not be able to supply their own military if these sanctions stay on. They simply won't, they will not have the capacity to put chips in their planes to buy the tank rounds that they will need to buy the PGM, the precision guided munitions that they are already running out of. They just won't. And so what some people in the U.S. government's working on is whether the request from Moscow and to Beijing is not tactical, but whether it's actually strategic, that whether Putin will admit that actually his long term military might, may have to depend on Chinese technology. And that is, for those of you who do this military stuff, it's an extraordinary moment, if that's what happens, because that's not a request to backfill, that is essentially a request to one become a client state of China, but to the entire Russian military would have to relearn all the technology that China would sell to Russia. We do not see that yet. We don't see any military transition from China into Russia, according to U.S. officials, and we don't even see the money that Moscow is asking for. And so we'll see. But clearly, the vulnerability, almost the willingness of Moscow to go hat in hand to Beijing, really says something, and it does present a very alternative, alternate future. If the request one is satisfied, and two or three requests becomes more strategic than just tactical.
Jon Sawyer: And what about from your experience in Russia? I mean, a lot of us looking at this and sort of seeing that vulnerability, seeing where the long term trends appear to be headed. For Russia, they think, Well, that's the making of serious opposition within Russia. And yet, we're seeing very little sign of that so far as we're seeing folks leaving, get out of the country who might might have been part of the opposition. But we're not in the inner circle, the oligarchs, I don't see any sign of daylight yet between them and Putin.
Nick Schifrin: Yeah. I mean, I defer to the to the 'Kremlinologists' as I call them on on this, who say to me – Alina Polakova, we had on the show last night, she's very good. She's from CEPA, Center for European Policy Analysis. She said, no daylight as far as anyone can tell between the oligarchs and Putin. So let's just take that as a given. What we see is a stifling that we have not seen in the Russian Federation, period, and that we haven't seen in the Soviet Union for a long time. 15,000 people have been detained in the four weeks of this war. They are not allowed to use the word war. They're not allowed to use the word invasion. There was a woman who stood outside I think the Ministry of Foreign Affairs building holding a little note card that said 'two words,' like she wrote on the note card, 'two words.’Like Casey at the bat, which two words she wrote two words, literally, the word two and the word words, and she was detained. And TV Rain, Echo Moscow radio, all independent media gone.
Alexi Navalny, leading opposition figure, not only was his anti corruption foundation, found the equivalent of al Qaeda – and that was a while ago. You know, yesterday, he got nine and a half years in a maximum-security prison. So two and a half years in a non-maximum security prison for the leading opposition figure in Russia was not enough, apparently, you know, you got nine years in a maximum-security prison. That was yesterday. I mean, let's just call a spade a spade. We have not seen this kind of crackdown in Russia at all. And you know, you have to go back to some of the worst days of the Soviet Union. Obviously, you know, we're not talking about Gulags yet, but we're talking about a level of repression. That is extraordinary. And that means that anyone who would be in the opposition, anyone who dares to even have an open conversation about the war in Ukraine, risks being thrown in jail. And so, you know, when I interviewed Alexi Navalny, as part of that Pulitzer series, way back when, that was five years ago, now, you know – he said it, he warned us, you know, he said that anyone who thinks that this isn't going to expand is being naive. And here we are, at a moment when we have that moment that we haven't seen in Russia at all.
Jon Sawyer: Nick, we're almost at time. I want to take just a couple of minutes to get your perspective. Share with us what it was like as a reporter trying to put together your reports over the last few weeks. To me, I've always been a huge, huge fan of the NewsHour and what they do. But I think it's just been extraordinary the last few weeks to see how first you and now Jane Ferguson, Malcolm Brabant, and others in the region, putting together that sort of mix of in-person field interviews with the kind of bigger picture, and share with us for those who are not journalists on this call, just give us a sense of what the days are like, how you structure all of that.
Nick Schifrin: They start at eight, and they ended three. The only way to do what we try to do, and we are a little bit unique, and you you know, people can can say whether it works better or not. But you know, I filed seven- to eight-minute packages every night, not three-minute packages, reformatted packages. But I would film every day, three minutes worth of material. And so usually it would be a combination of, let's say, we were in Odessa, one day, you know, kind of four or five interviews, including the mayor kind of tour of downtown. And we would try and weave that into a story of the day's news. So that includes Kyiv, that includes Kharkiv, that includes the West. And so we would go out and film till you know, three or four or 5pm local, and I would be writing basically what we filmed as we filmed it. And then sit down in the hotel and go through my cameraman Eric O'Connor’s material and write more specifically to his material and what he shot, having already written kind of frames for each scene. And then I had a huge team behind me in D.C. saying, well, there's this video from elsewhere and this video from elsewhere. And then this happened in Brussels, and this happened in Moscow, and we would just fashion a huge piece every night. And so that's that's kind of how it works.
On a more personal level, you know, that's kind of just literally how it works. Personally, you know, I pursue people, and I try and share stories that go into the extraordinary sacrifices, the extraordinary emotions, the extraordinary feelings that only exist in a warzone. Whether it's families splitting themselves up, as the father says goodbye, the train station, whether it's the guy from Mariupol who tells a single story of horror. And that's what motivates me. And that's what I believe my job is, is to bring those stories and share those stories with with our viewers. And so that's my motivation for the stuff that we were filming.
Jon Sawyer: Just one more thing to come back, I mentioned our concern about security and trying to be as safe as possible in doing this. Share a little bit about how NewsHour and you on the ground, you and Eric, how you approach the security. I know you had the Ukrainian, the interpreters, drivers, so on, what the security strategy is?
Nick Schifrin: Yeah, so I don't know how much, you know, Morgan wanted me to talk about specifics. So I'll just say that, you know, you identified Jon, the most important member of the team. You know, a lot of colleagues rely on professional security advisors. And certainly in certain countries, I've had that over over the years, but it is the Ukrainian who's from Kyiv, the one I work with an invalid Amir, who says maybe we shouldn't go down this street, or maybe we shouldn't go to this neighborhood today. Or, you know, here's what is safe. And I think that, you know, relying on local knowledge is really the only way to do it. And you are in some ways only as good as your team. Let me rephrase that.
You know, I am we all are only as good as our team. And the team is is even subsequently more only as good as that local reporter that local producer, you know, we call them fixer sometimes, but they're much more than fixers. They are journalists who happen to be from the country we work in. And so Vladimir, who actually began his journalism career with me in the my dawn in 2014. In Kyiv during during that attempted revolution, has continued to be a journalist since and I've worked with him for the last eight years. So we rely on him to be our barometer. And then of course, we we make decisions along with our editors. I was back back in DC about well, we shouldn't.
Jon Sawyer: Great, Nick, we're at time. I know this is a very busy day. I really appreciate you making this time and everything that you and NewsHour do on this and other crises. As I said at the top of the talk, if you go to pulitzercenter.org/ukraine, you'll you'll see all of the coverage that we've been involved with at the Pulitzer Center on Ukraine, you'll also see the guidelines for those journalists are listening, we are eager for proposals, we've got half a dozen projects that we funded just in the last two weeks. On Ukraine and the surrounding regions, we're looking for more, we do want to have solid partnerships with news outlets to work so we can be sure that anybody we support will be able to do this safely. But reach out to us, our editorial team is eager to discuss proposals and and just in closing, thank you, all, for making time for us today for being part of this conversation. And and Nick, Nick, the adventure, the beginning when we came back after all of this he tested positive as he arrived for COVID. So instead of reuniting with his wife and baby, he went straight to the basement.
Nick Schifrin: Yeah. Like it's something about adding insult to injury, but I hope that that's your path set. In moving on. Yeah, but thank you. Thanks so much, Jon. Thanks, everyone. Okay, take care. Thanks so much.