Biden stops in Poland as Ukrainian civilians endure Russia’s onslaught

President Biden is in Poland meeting with a key NATO ally that shares borders with both Ukraine and Russia ahead of what the White House calls a "major address" in the Polish capital. Meantime in Ukraine, the horrific toll of a Russian airstrike on a theater in the south came into sharper and terrible focus. Jane Ferguson reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    President Biden is in Poland today meeting with a key NATO ally that shares borders with both Ukraine and Russia. Mr. Biden ends his night in Warsaw, ahead of what the White House calls a major address tomorrow in the Polish capital.

    Meantime, in Ukraine, the horrific toll of a Russian airstrike on a theater in the south came into sharper and terrible focus.

    But our Jane Ferguson again begins our coverage with the president's visit near the front.

  • President Joe Biden:

    Hey, folks, I just came by to say thanks.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Visiting American troops in Poland, the president thanked them for defending NATO's borders, but said their mission was bigger.

  • President Joe Biden:

    Who is going to prevail? Are democracies going to prevail and the values we share, or are autocracies going to prevail? And that's really what's at stake. So what you're doing is consequential, really consequential.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Mr. Biden also thanked his Polish hosts for welcoming more than 2.2 million refugees, the most of any country neighboring Ukraine.

  • President Joe Biden:

    The suffering that's taking place now is at your doorstep. You're the ones who are risking, in some cases, your lives and risking all you know to try to help.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    The president also announced more natural gas exports to Europe, at least 15 billion cubic meters. The E.U. buys more than a quarter of its oil and nearly half its gas from Russia.

  • President Joe Biden:

    Putin has issued Russia's energy resources to coerce and manipulate its neighbors. That's how he's used it. He's used the profits to drive his war machine.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    To punish the West over sanctions, President Vladimir Putin asked that Russian gas exports be paid in rubles, sending European gas prices soaring. The E.U. called it blackmail, but member nations remain divided over a Russian oil and gas embargo.

    Nearly 2,000 miles away, in the southern city of Mariupol, civilians remain besieged, bombarded, and now, according to officials, starving to death, as food runs out.

    For the first time, video emerged from inside a landmark theater, showing survivors in shock after a deliberate Russian airstrike. Following a week spent searching the wreckage, local officials said 300 victims died.

    For the first time in days, Russia agreed to two humanitarian corridors, including one from Mariupol. But inside the city, hundreds of thousands remain trapped. In this open air prison, they dig graves by the roadside. Viktoria's stepfather was killed two weeks ago. Until now, the cold weather made the soil too hard to bury him.

  • Viktoria, Mariupol Resident (through translator):

    When the doctor was taking our stepfather to the hospital, this guy took a seat in the car, instead of me. And they blew them up in this car. It could have been me.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Ukraine says Russia is distributing aid in parts of the city it seized, but, for many, it's not enough to stay alive.

  • Alexandra, Mariupol Resident:

    My husband didn't make it to receive humanitarian aid. He had diabetes. The scarce diet of the last days led him to coma, and he died.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    A senior U.S. defense official said today Russia is focusing its military objectives in the eastern Donbass region. The official said Russian forces don't want to pursue Kyiv aggressively and are taking defensive positions. A Russian official suggested that was always the plan.

    Sergei Rudskoi, Head of Russian General Staff's Main Operational Directorate (through translator): The main objectives of the first stage of the operation have generally been accomplished. The combat potential of the armed forces of Ukraine has been considerably reduced, which makes it possible to focus our core efforts on achieving the main goal, the liberation of Donbass.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    But, for now, there are still cross-country attacks. In Kharkiv, there were explosions near a humanitarian distribution site. To the north, the city of Chernihiv is all but cut off, losing its main road bridge in an airstrike this week.

    A day after President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called for global demonstrations, European capitals overflowed with Ukrainian flags and many Ukrainian people.

  • Olana, Ukrainian Refugee (through translator):

    Ukraine is my home, and we want to come back to our home.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And Jane joins us now from Poland.

    Jane, so tell us more about this announcement from the Russian military. Is this a climb-down on their part?

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Judy, there is potential in that.

    We have seen them coming out with all of niece statements today talking about how, first of all, the first phase of this military operation, the special military operation, as they call it — they refuse to call it a war — has been — quote, unquote — "successful" or completed by them.

    They have said that they have decimated or massively reduced the capabilities of the Ukrainian military. We know that's not true, that they will be moving on to phase two, which would be shoring up or supporting the Donbass region in the far east. That's the restive separatist part of the country.

    Now, it is — there is hope that this could be an indicator that Putin is trying to find some sort of off-ramp to save face. He has to answer to the Russian people for the potentially 15,000 soldiers, Russian soldiers, that are believed to have been killed in this fighting and for the fact that they couldn't take Kyiv.

    We know from intelligence reports that the initial plan was to try to decapitate the government in Kyiv and replace it with a more Russian-friendly one, that they had much broader plans and ambitions. They invaded this country from many different angles and different positions.

    So this — there's a possibility that this could be an attempt to start a narrative which saves face. But don't forget, this is coming from the Russian military. We have heard no such words from Putin himself yet.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So it might be too optimistic to think it is a climb-down.

    So, Jane, what then are thought to be Putin's other options here?

  • Jane Ferguson:

    You're right. It could be too optimistic. We have seen word saying that this — that they're changing tack, but we're also seeing attacks on cities. Those could continue.

    Putin still has — he may not be able to send his troops into those cities to take them over. But he still has missiles and airstrikes that he can continue to bombard cities with. President Biden has also raised again several times now the possibility that Putin could use biological or chemical weapons.

    And, of course, Russia is a nuclear power. So, for now, although these words might be encouraging for some, there's still so — there's still the other options, deadlier options, that Biden (sic) could choose to use in the coming weeks and months.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So grim that — to think what Vladimir Putin could do.

    Jane Ferguson joining us tonight from Poland.

    Thank you, Jane.

    And the "NewsHour"s coverage of the Russian invasion is supported in partnership with the Pulitzer Center.

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