Ukrainian forces cautiously advance into Kherson, fearing a trap as Russian troops retreat

Ukraine continues to press its offensive in the south, as Russia begins its withdrawal from the strategic city of Kherson. As the U.S. sends its 25th package of arms and military aid to Ukraine, Charles Kupchan and Evelyn Farkas join Nick Schifrin to discuss if the U.S. should be emphasizing diplomacy to find an end to the war.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The United States announced today that it will send another package of arms and military aid to Ukraine, this one worth $400 million.

    We will have a debate with experts on whether the U.S. should be emphasizing diplomacy to find an end of the war.

    But, first, Nick Schifrin reports that Kyiv has seized territory across the south, as Russia begins its withdrawal from the only regional capital that it captured Kherson.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The Kremlin vowed this Ukrainian territory would be Russia forever. Just five weeks later, Ukrainian soldiers proved Putin's promise hollow.

    Kherson residents welcome their liberators. Ukrainian troops today flew the blue and yellow over more than 40 villages that Russia occupied on the war's first day, and they walked through abandoned Russian camps. U.S. officials called the Russian retreat orderly, but Russian soldiers left behind their patches and I.D.s.

    Russia seized the regional capital, Kherson, in late February and annexed the entire region in late September. But now U.S. officials say Ukrainian soldiers are advancing along three axes toward the city and the Dnipro River; 20,000 to 30,000 professional Russian troops already withdrew across the river. They have been replaced by conscripts, who maintain defensive positions.

    But yesterday on Russian TV, commander Sergei Surovikin told Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu they would soon retreat.

  • Sergei Shoigu, Russian Defense Minister (through translator):

    Proceed with the withdrawal of troops and take all measures to ensure the safe transfer of personnel, weapons and equipment across the Dnipro River.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Ukrainian officials feared the Russians booby-trapped the city and don't trust any Russian claim.

  • Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Ukrainian President (through translator):

    We move very carefully, without emotions, without unnecessary risk. This is how we will secure the liberation of Kherson and our other cities.

    Michael Kofman, Center for Naval Analyses: The preponderance of evidence shows that the Russian military is withdrawing across the Dnipro River and is trying to maximally pull out its forces, to the extent that it can, to preserve them and then use them in a follow-on campaign.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Michael Kofman is the Center for Naval Analyses Russia Research Program director. Earlier this month, he visited Kherson with other researchers.

  • Michael Kofman:

    But the real challenge for the Russian military was a very basic one, which is logistics. Over time, they have been running low on ammunition, simply made it untenable for them to try to sustain so many troops across the river while their supply lines were being interdicted.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And now Ukrainians must reckon with what Russia left behind. Liberated residents are relieved after months of Russian occupation.

    And in the city of Kherson, "PBS NewsHour" spoke to residents who would only talk anonymously. One wrote on an encrypted app: "They took away the businesses of many of my friends. Russian soldiers came with weapons and told them they had three minutes to leave."

    We spoke to another resident on the phone who described acts of torture.

  • Speaker (through translator):

    Most a lot of men were detained and thrown into basements. They beat them so severely, they couldn't walk for several days. They splashed them with boiling water during interrogations. I want all the people to hear and know the truth. Things they're doing here are horrific. We need to stop it as soon as possible.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But how to stop the war? Last Friday, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan met Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Multiple U.S. officials tell "PBS NewsHour" Sullivan asked Zelenskyy to reduce his public skepticism about diplomacy and detail what peace might mean, as Sullivan suggested in a Kyiv press conference.

  • Jake Sullivan, U.S. National Security Adviser:

    That the conversation that we need to have with the international community in support of Ukraine is, what are the terms of a just and lasting peace for Ukraine?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Four days later, Zelenskyy dropped his previous refusal to talk with Putin, but maintained Ukraine's demands that include reseizing all territory lost since 2014.

  • Volodymyr Zelenskyy (through translator):

    Restoration of territorial integrity, compensation for all damage, punishment of every war criminal, and guarantees that this will not happen again.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But in a talk last night, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mark Milley suggested he did not believe either side could achieve their military goals.

    Gen. Mark Milley, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff: There has to be a mutual recognition that military victory is probably, in the true sense of the world — word, is maybe not achievable through military means. And, therefore, you need to turn to other means.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Milley cited World War I, when he said commanders who knew they couldn't win kept fighting, leading to 20 million killed.

  • Gen. Mark Milley:

    So, when there's an opportunity to negotiate, when peace can be achieved, seize it. Seize the moment.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But Sullivan and other American officials insist they are not telling Ukraine what to do.

  • Jake Sullivan:

    The United States is not pressuring Ukraine. We're not insisting on things with Ukraine. What we're doing is consulting as partners.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    For more on what the American role should be to find an end to the war, we get two opposing views.

    Charles Kupchan is a professor at Georgetown University and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was senior director for European affairs on the Obama National Security Council staff. And Evelyn Farkas is the executive director of the McCain Institute at Arizona State University. She served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, also during the Obama administration.

    Thanks very much. Welcome, both of you, back to the "NewsHour."

    Charles Kupchan, let me start with you.

    We just showed what General Milley said. He said, "When there's an opportunity to negotiate, seize the moment."

    Do you believe the U.S. should push Ukraine to seize the moment and today start negotiations?

  • Charles Kupchan, Former National Security Council Official:

    I think the United States needs to elevate diplomacy, not necessarily say we need to go today to push Kyiv to start talking to the Russians.

    But we need to begin to elevate this issue. And that's because I think we have to make a judgment call here about the nature of U.S. and Western interests that are at stake. And Biden made a judgment early on that the U.S. would support Ukraine, but that Ukraine would do the fighting. We're not ready to go to war with Russia over Eastern Ukraine. And I think that's the right call.

    I think we're now in a situation in which the chances of escalation are rising. It's conceivable to me that, if the Ukrainians continue to make progress on the battlefield, which I think they will, the Russians might respond by using a nuclear weapon, if they feel pressed against the wall, if they feel that they might lose all of Donbass and Crimea.

    As a consequence, it seems to me we ought to put into the mix a conversation about how to end the war sooner, rather than later, because, for me, running a risk of war between NATO and Russia, including the use of nuclear weapons, is too high a risk.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Evelyn Farkas, is there a risk of escalation? And is there a risk, in your opinion, to, as Charlie just said, the elevation of diplomacy?

  • Evelyn Farkas, Former Defense Department Official:

    The time is not right.

    Clearly, Ukraine is winning. And our objective is to have Ukraine win, to defeat Russia in Ukraine militarily, so that Russia doesn't then turn to Georgia, to Moldova, and then to NATO countries.

    The other thing I think is important to note is that Vladimir Putin is rational. The people around him are rational. They know that, if they use a nuclear device, even if they just detonate a nuclear device in a demonstration that they can do it, the world will look very different the next day.

    President Biden himself has said that he warned the Russians that there will be consequences. Certainly, the United States then will take conventional military action directly against whatever Russian military unit conducted that mission. And, and the international community will resolve that no government that would use a military weapon, that would explode a military device in the context of a war, or in any context, really, is should remain in power.

    And then the international community will act to pressure the Russian government, essentially, to remove Vladimir Putin. So the stakes are too high for Vladimir Putin. Let's remember that, time and time again, Vladimir Putin has threatened to use nuclear power, has talked about red lines.

    And every time we are the Ukrainians crossed one of those lines, whether it's attacking Crimea, whether it's sending Javelin missiles, the Russian government has not escalated. In fact, it has backed down.

    So we have to remain firm.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Charles Kupchan, might the Russians back down? And what's wrong with that point that Evelyn Farkas and made, which is helping Ukraine win and defeating Russia?

  • Charles Kupchan:

    I'm all for helping Ukraine to continue to make progress on the battlefield. And I think our policy so far has been the right one.

    I don't agree with Evelyn that, if Putin comes away with Crimea or with any chunk of Donbass, that he's suddenly going to attack NATO. And so the question really is, is it worth running the risk of a direct war between NATO and Russia, including the possible use of nuclear weapons, to ensure his utter and total defeat, the liberation of every inch of Ukrainian territory?

    My judgment is, it is not worth running that risk because it could lead to World War III.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Evelyn Farkas, risk of World War III?

  • Evelyn Farkas:

    I think the greater risk is if Vladimir Putin prevails in Ukraine, because he will then turn to Georgia and Moldova, where there are Russian forces already.

    Remember, he's already told us he — he outlined what he wants. He wants a neo-imperial Russia, and he does not want to NATO at his doorstep. He wants NATO weakened and destroyed. And that's why I think the risk actually increases if Vladimir Putin gets his way in Ukraine.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Charles Kupchan, what do you think the main elements of an agreement between Ukraine and Russia might be?

  • Charles Kupchan:

    I think there are probably two main components.

    One is an Ukrainian agreement to stick to neutrality. And, secondly, I think there needs to be a conversation about territory. Where a new line might be drawn is very difficult to say. I think it might make sense to start the conversation by going back to the borders of February 24, when we saw the initial Russian invasion of more of Ukraine.

    And then the conversation begins about Crimea, about the future of the eastern sections of Donbass, but at least let's have that dialogue.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Evelyn Farkas, should the U.S. support some kind of negotiation in which Ukraine agrees to neutrality and does not necessarily re-achieve the territory seized by Russia in 2014, Crimea and the Donbass?

  • Evelyn Farkas:

    Well, no, because that's not what the Ukrainian government has said that they want.

    So we need to support the Ukrainian government in their effort to regain their territory. If President Zelenskyy decides that enough is enough, which would, of course, only happen if his people decide that they are done fighting, then we will support them in achieving a peace.

    But, at this point in time, the Ukrainian military is winning. The Russian military is weak. The Russian government is looking for a pause. It's very clear that the Russians are back on their heels right now. We have an opportunity. The Ukrainians understand that. And we should help Ukraine.

    Right now, we are not providing them with the maximum assistance that we could give them to end this war quickly.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Evelyn Farkas, Charles Kupchan, thank you very much to you both.

  • Evelyn Farkas:

    Thank you.

  • Charles Kupchan:

    Thank you. Good to be with you.

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