Russia’s war in Ukraine passes the 3-month mark with no end in sight

It has been exactly three months since Russia invaded Ukraine. At its peak the largest war in Europe in 80 years displaced more than 13 million people. Tens of thousands of Russian and Ukrainian soldiers and civilians have been killed in the conflict. Nick Schifrin joins William Brangham to discuss.

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  • William Brangham:

    As we reported, it's been exactly three months since Russia invaded Ukraine.

    It is the largest war in Europe in 80 years, and, at its peak, displaced more than 13 million Ukrainians. That's 30 percent of the country. Tens of thousands of Ukrainian civilians have also died.

    And though there is no official number, U.S. and Ukrainian officials have said tens of thousands of Russian and Ukrainian troops have also been killed.

    To take stock of where we are, I'm joined by Nick Schifrin.

    Nick, the Russians are currently focused on the eastern Donbass region. But, as we well know, that was not their original intent. Can you remind us of the evolution of this invasion?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes, at the beginning, it's what President Volodymyr Zelenskyy calls total war, the idea of overthrowing the government in Kyiv, and targeting civilians in order to break the will of the population.

    Let's go back to February 23 and the map before the invasion of, Crimea, parts of Donetsk and Luhansk in red controlled by Russian forces since 2014. And then, February 24, Russian forces invaded in the north toward Kyiv, in the east, the second largest city in Kharkiv, and from the south in Crimea. U.S. officials feared that Kyiv could fall within days.

    Fast-forward to March 24. Kyiv held, but Russia seized swathes of territory. This is the high watermark of the invasion. But in the north and the east, Russian forces were already bogged down. Ukrainian forces were beating them back.

    And so, by April the 6th, what you see in blue in the north there, Ukraine won the battle of Kyiv, pushed Russian troops all the way out of Northern Ukraine. And then this is the map today. Russian forces have been pushed beyond artillery range in Kharkiv, but, in the south, they have consolidated their control around Mariupol, giving them a land bridge to Crimea.

    And now Russian goals have shrunk. You see that city in the east, Severodonetsk. That is the last Ukrainian city held in Luhansk. That is the Russian goal. And U.S. and Ukrainian officials, William, fear that this war could be a grinding stalemate that could go on for a long time.

  • William Brangham:

    So, in that scenario, who benefits?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    It's a key question, but it's not a simple one to answer.

    Let's look at Ukraine. Ukraine believes that, over time, it will have more weapons online. That means American artillery that it's already using, anti-ship missiles that it could target Russian ships blockading the largest port. And multiple U.S. officials telling me they're considering sending the multiple-launch rocket system HIMARS.

    Now, Ukrainian officials tell me that those weapons combined will allow them to launch counteroffensives. But an official close to Zelenskyy admits to me that it's unlikely that the military will be able to dislodge the Russians from territory they already occupy. And that means that Zelenskyy will either have to cede territory, which he's already ruled out, or this war will go on for a long time, because Russia is not going to give up the territory they have already occupied.

  • William Brangham:

    And, in the meantime, as you have well reported, civilians are the ones who get stuck in the middle.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes, absolutely.

    You mentioned the number of refugees, the number of displaced at the beginning of this segment. In addition to that, Ukraine says half-a-million Ukrainians have been coerced to leave their homes and go to Russia.

    And during my trip to Ukraine recently, I spoke to one of them, a resident of Mariupol who's still in Russia, about the destruction of his hometown and his life before the war.

    Two days before he lost everything, Andrei stood in the lobby of his club confident in the future. We're changing his name and keeping him anonymous because he's still living the hell that, on this day, he couldn't have foreseen.

    With U.N. grants, he built amusement centers with Star Wars themes, his clientele, children on their birthdays. He had a months-long waiting list and planned to open a third club. And he always brought his own inner child to work. He was becoming a successful entrepreneur.

  • ANDREI, Mariupol Evacuee (through translator):

    When you help children celebrate and put them in a good mood, it's a wonderful energy. Business was a pleasure. We loved doing this.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    We spoke to him via Skype from Ukraine.

  • ANDREI (through translator):

    When you do what you love, it gives you joy.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    What happened when the war began?

  • ANDREI (through translator):

    I did not believe until the last moment that they would bombard the city center, that they would start attacking residential buildings. I didn't believe it until it was too late.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Russia reduced Mariupol to ruins.

    What used to be a port of 400,000 residents became a city that belonged to the dead. Officials say the siege killed at least 20,000 people. The bombardment was relentless. The only safe space was underground.

    And, for Andrei, that meant the club for celebration became a shelter from war.

  • ANDREI (through translator):

    We stayed there for 43 days, 43 days, but it seemed like an eternity. Sometimes, in normal life, you don't notice when a day or a week passes. But when we were down there, every hour seemed like a whole day.

    Approximately a week after it started, the lights went off, then the gas. Then, after a while, the city was reduced to ruins. And it was impossible to buy anything anywhere. We all saw dead people lying around. We had a headless man lying at the entrance to our neighborhood. No one cleared it out for a week.

    The whole city was covered with corpses.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Andrei photographed departments now bombed, markets now burned, a city almost entirely powerless, trying to maintain hope. He's smiling behind the blur.

    How did you end up leaving Mariupol?

  • ANDREI (through translator):

    We lived through a situation where there was no longer anything left to bombard. The humanitarian corridors into Russia opened up. They were safe.

    I heard that some made it through the front line towards Ukrainian-held territory, but it was dangerous. People left in convoys. And these convoys were shot at. So we had to leave for Russia, because I didn't see another safe option.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    On April the 8th, Andrei, his wife and children traveled in a Russian-controlled convoy north toward Nikolske through Russian filtration.

  • ANDREI (through translator):

    Filtration takes two weeks. People wait their turn. They are screened on various subjects and on any connections to the military.

    God forbid they find any Ukrainian regalia. You would be led away. And not everyone comes back.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    On April 30, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Moscow had received — quote — "requests for assistance" in evacuating 2.8 million people to Russia.

    But at a G7 meeting earlier this month, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy compared Russia to World War II Germany.

  • VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY, Ukrainian President (through translator):

    The deportation of more than 500,000 Ukrainians to Russia and the so-called filtration camps are imitations of the deportations and concentration camps that the Nazis organized in Europe.

  • MAN:

    So, the convention is adopted by this assembly by unanimous vote.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In response to that Nazi genocide, after World War II, the members of the General Assembly unanimously signed the Genocide Convention. It defines genocide as intent to destroy a group in whole or in part, and highlights forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

    Ukraine says that's what Russia is doing today. Andrei, his wife and his children were taken across the Russian border to Taganrog.

  • ANDREI (through translator):

    There is a tent camp where refugees are accommodated and fed. There are many volunteers who understand the situation and help people.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But, back in Mariupol, his grandparents and his wife's entire family had stayed behind. So he returned to rescue them.

    He compared the destruction to Chernobyl. His own apartment had taken a direct hit. This used to be the kitchen. This was his bedroom, just outside, Russian troops whom Andrei says are bribable.

  • ANDREI (through translator):

    When I went to the city the second time, I had to go through filtration. I could pay money to go through an expedited process. Usually, it takes two weeks for people to go through it. It took me one day. They copy your phone contact list. They check all of your social media, take a photograph, take your fingerprints. You feel like a prisoner.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    He retrieved his exhausted in-laws and his grandmother who, behind the blur, shares his smile.

  • ANDREI (through translator):

    We did the right thing to leave, because most of the survivors cling to the remnants of their property and their memories of the city as it once was. There will be nothing there in the coming years, and it will not be quick to restore it from scratch.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Today, he and his family live in the Russian city of Krasnodar with tens of thousands of displaced Ukrainians forced to live in a city of three-quarters-of-a-million Russians.

  • ANDREI (through translator):

    A lot of people here are against what is happening. A lot of people hug us and cry and talk to us and say: "We understand what's going on. But there's nothing we can do."

    There is huge anger at the government. I haven't been issued any documents, and I don't want them. I don't want documents from a country that destroyed your city and your life.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    A life that felt limitless two days before the invasion today, like his hometown, destroyed and controlled by Moscow.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

  • William Brangham:

    Our coverage of the war in Ukraine is supported in partnership with the Pulitzer Center.

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