Ukrainians resist attack as countries sanction Russia

Special Correspondent Simon Ostrovsky has been covering Ukraine for many years. In 2019, he interviewed President Zelensky when he was running for office about his foreign policy and strategy on Russia. Ostrovsky joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss the ongoing invasion.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Simon Ostrovsky has been covering Ukraine for years.

    In 2019, he caught up with then presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelensky and asked about his foreign policy with Russia.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    You're an actor with no political experience, your country is at war with Russia. Vladimir Putin, 20 years at the helm. How are you going to deal with Vladimir Putin?

  • Volodymyr Zelensky:

    First of all, we will do everything to make sure that Vladimir Putin never ends up at the helm of our country. The main problem in our relationship with Russia is the war. No one has a real answer, how to stop Putin. All we can do is continue talks to achieve a ceasefire.

    Simon Ostrovsky joined me earlier today for more on the current Russian invasion.

    I wonder what you think now of President Zelensky, who is going out of his way to make sure that his people know that he is not fleeing, that he is staying put and he plans to fight? I mean, you've got the mayor of Kyiv also doing the same. What is the message that that is sending, does that convince people on the ground?

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    Well, you saw from the clip that Zelensky, when he was still a candidate to be president, counted on the international community to rally to his side and help him in dealing with Vladimir Putin. And the messages that we've seen him putting out in these days is that we are on our own. It is up to us to fight for our own survival. And so I think it's a 180 degree turn, at least in the messaging that we've seen in this man as he's been president for several years and realized that it was up to Ukrainians to save themselves. And that's not to say that the international community isn't providing material assistance to Ukraine, they are, money and arms. But the fighting is being done by Ukrainians and by Ukrainians alone. And I don't think that anybody expected that he would be Ukraine's wartime president in an era very reminiscent of 1939, a massive land war on the European continent.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    I know you reported from the Donbass region before, where again, most Americans are just waking up to the fact that there had been a hot war going on for the past eight years. When you saw the movements of Russia around into those two regions, what were the people that you had met with there telling you about how quickly this was happening?

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    Well, Ukraine has had eight years to prepare for what's going on now, and the situation was, of course, very, very different. In 2014 and in 2015, when the war initially began, it had a military that had essentially been dismantled and was decrepit and that had not been maintained under the pro-Russia government of Viktor Yanukovych. And so, you know, we saw in those days in the initial stages, the defense is melting away and there were a lot of people on the ground who just didn't believe in the possibility that Ukraine could defend itself against Russia.

    And so especially in those eastern regions, you saw a lot of people, and in Crimea of course, you saw a lot of people switching sides simply out of self-preservation. These days, I think Ukrainians have a lot more confidence in themselves and their country and their government and attitudes have really changed. So, you know, if Putin's idea in 2014 was to break up Ukraine as a country and destabilize it, then he's got the opposite result from his intervention, which is an increase in patriotism and national identity. I think the opposite of, essentially,his nightmare scenario.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    You know, at the time when you were reporting several years ago, you were kidnapped by pro-Russian militia forces. And I wonder what you learned from the people who were kind of in detention or imprisoned with you at the time. People who were fighting against, well, that side of the war.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    I was actually kidnapped by a group of militants that were led by a Russian citizen named Igor Gerken, a former FSB officer who had orchestrated the takeover of the town that I was reporting from when I was taken captive and when they detained me and threw me in the basement, there were other civilians down there, bloggers, a streamer, a journalist, a nationalist Ukrainian who had actually come to the region to fight. I was fortunately released after being held for just three days because there was a lot of international outcry about my kidnapping. A lot of the media who were in the area were very vocal about my case. But the other men who were down there with me ended up spending months in detention in those terrible conditions until their city was retaken by Ukrainian forces. But obviously, not all the territory was retaken by Ukrainian forces, and so many people, including journalists and human rights workers, ended up spending years in dark prisons in the areas controlled by the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Simon, you've also reported extensively on misinformation and disinformation campaigns and how they work, especially in this region. In the last week or so have you seen an uptick in how propaganda is kind of being hurled by the Russian side or how people are projecting what's happening on the ground?

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    Yeah, just this morning, you know, there were very controversial reports about what the source of that attack on the residential building was. You had the Ukrainian authorities saying that this was a Russian rocket that hit a civilian residence, and you had the Russian side saying that this was a misfired SAM surface to air missile from the Ukrainian side that had been trying to shoot down a Russian rocket and it went off course and hit the building. So, you know, in the fog of war, it's very hard to verify exactly what's happening, especially from a distance. But we've seen, especially in the lead up to this campaign, the Russians going full bore in trying to claim that it was the Ukrainians who had instigated this war and that it was in response to those attacks that Russia invaded. But it seems pretty ridiculous just from a logical standpoint to think that the Ukrainians would choose the time when Russia had tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of soldiers around its borders to launch a counterattack in the Donbas. That just seems silly. Nonetheless, the Russians are also the ones who are claiming that not a single Russian soldier has died in the conflict yet, so it's not entirely surprising.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Simon Ostrovsky, thanks so much.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    Thanks for having me.

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