Zelenskyy says Russia’s battle for the east has begun as besieged Mariupol holds on

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Monday that the expected next phase of Russia’s war, focusing on the eastern part of his nation, appears to have begun. John Yang reports, then Judy Woodruff talks to retired Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, the former U.S. ambassador to NATO, and Dmitri Alperovitch of the Silverado Policy Accelerator about what to expect and what Russia wants.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said tonight that the expected new phase of Russia's war on his nation appears to have begun.

    Eastern Ukraine is being targeted with airstrikes and heavy shelling, as Moscow moves in more troops to press its campaign in the region. The besieged city of Mariupol in the southeast continues to hold out against a punishing Russian assault that has almost completely leveled the city.

    Meantime, Russian missiles claimed their first victims in the far Western city of Lviv.

    That's where John Yang begins our coverage.

    John Yang The people of largely spared Lviv awoke to an unfamiliar sight, black smoke filling the sky, craters blown in the earth, and roofs smashed.

    Ukrainian officials say several Russian missiles struck targets and killed at least seven people, the war's first known deaths in Lviv.

  • Artem Mikhialo, Displaced From Kyiv (through translator):

    I think it is not safe anywhere in Ukraine. I hope it will be over soon. When five missiles hit today, I woke up because of the explosions. I was worried for people.

  • John Yang:

    The western city has been a way station for incoming supplies and for civilians fleeing war to the east.

    But Russia sent a message with this strike, said Serhiy Bufistov who had fled from Donetsk.

  • Serhiy Bufistov, Displaced From Donetsk (through translator):

    When there's a war against the enemy, an insidious enemy going on, unfortunately, there are no safe havens in Ukraine. Missiles are sent from all over.

  • John Yang:

    In Eastern Ukraine, Kharkiv has been under deadly and intensifying bombardment. A woman grieved her father, another victim of Moscow's assault.

    Russia said it also launched mass overnight strikes on hundreds of military targets across Ukraine. But a senior U.S. defense official said today Russian forces continue to reinforce the east and south are still moving into the Donbass region, as they attempt to close in on the capture of Mariupol.

    After seven weeks of siege, this city is in ruins, facing the risk of full Russian control. Battered streets are now littered with the dead, now a common sight for the more than 100,000 civilians still trapped.

  • Irina, Mariupol Resident (through translator):

    We came back to get our stuff. We left wearing just winter clothes, and don't have anything else.

  • John Yang:

    Irina and her nieces are taking anything they can from their home, now smashed and burned. They don't know where to go, but are desperately trying to flee.

    Last weekend, Moscow claimed its forces were close to seizing the city and asked Ukrainian troops to lay down their arms. But there were no signs of surrender. This iron and steel works plan to the east of Mariupol is one of the last pockets of Ukrainian defense.

  • Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Ukrainian President (through translator):

    Russian forces are destroying Mariupol. They want to wipe off the face of the earth other places and other cities in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. We are doing everything to ensure defense.

  • John Yang:

    In a nighttime speech, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy appealed to world leaders for more weapons and new sanctions. But, today, Russia's President Vladimir Putin said his nation's economy was invincible.

  • Vladimir Putin, Russian President (through translator):

    We can now confidently say that such policy of sanctions towards Russia has failed.

  • John Yang:

    Russia's Central Bank chief gave a more negative assessment and said that sanctions will now begin to increasingly affect the real sectors of the economy.

    In the north, in Chernihiv, Russian troops have left a deadly legacy after their retreat. These emergency workers are removing explosive devices from the ground to prevent further harm. Outside the city, only the skeleton of this community remains. Charred military vehicles show evidence of a hasty Russian retreat, and those who live there are left to pick up the pieces.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    For more on the state of the war in Ukraine, we turn to retired Lieutenant General Doug Lute. He had a 35-year career in the army and served on the National Security Council staff during both the George W. Bush and the Obama administrations. He was also U.S. ambassador to NATO under President Obama.

    And Dmitri Alperovitch is co-founder of the Silverado Policy Accelerator, a Washington-based think tank.

    And welcome back to the "NewsHour" to both of you.

    Dmitri Alperovitch, let me begin with you.

    This statement we're hearing late today the President Zelenskyy is saying that the battle for the east has begun, that Russia — that it's now under way, what's the significance of that?

  • Dmitri Alperovitch, Co-Founder, Silverado Policy Accelerator:

    Well, the Ukrainians have been expecting this assault in the Donbass region for some time now, ever since the Russians withdrew from Kyiv and the northern parts of Ukraine.

    Now they were expecting the forces to be resupplied in the east. That's exactly what we have seen. U.S. intelligence is reporting that 76 battalion tactical groups of the Russian military are now in the east and the south. And what we're seeing is a massive artillery bombardment of the Ukrainian positions in Donbass, preparing for the armor assault that surely is coming in the coming hours.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Doug Lute, given that that's under way, what position are the Ukrainians in to fight back?

    Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute (Ret.), Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO: Well, Judy, well, this 300-mile front of the Russian attack is more narrow than the attack two months ago. So they have more concentrated their forces; 300-mile-front is still an enormously large and vulnerable front.

    And while the Russians have massed forces there, this is the same Russian army that was defeated in and around Kyiv. You can't change the quality of the Russian army in just these last few weeks. And while they're repositioning, you can be sure that President Zelenskyy's army is also repositioning.

    And I think what we can expect is continued Ukrainian attacks against the vulnerable Russian supply lines, a bit of a replay of the concept we saw north of Kyiv.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, and just quickly back to your, Dmitri Alperovitch, on this.

    The Russians, are they expecting the Ukrainians to put up a fierce fight in the east?

  • Dmitri Alperovitch:

    No doubt they're expecting that. In fact, the Ukrainians during are in entrenched positions there. They have been fighting, of course, in the Donbass region since 2014. A lot of fortifications there. So this will not be an easy fight.

    And the Russians are expecting at least 70,000, perhaps more Ukrainian forces, to be fighting their assault there.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And let me now turn you back, Doug Lute, to what we have been talking about for several days.

    And that is the city of Mariupol, which the Russians have all but wiped off the map, by all accounts, by their attacks on the city. We understand there's some — just a small holdout of Ukrainian troops in that city. What does it look like right now?

  • Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute:

    Well, it looks like the reports are probably correct that the Russians have seized Mariupol.

    But I draw a distinction between seizing it and controlling it. I think the Russians are in for a continued protracted fight in and around Mariupol as they try to resupply their forces that are now inside the city. So, the Ukrainians have not surrendered. They will shift to a new form of defense, which is a defense featuring attacks on the Russian supply lines and sniping at — from every angle on the Russian forces inside the city.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Meaning how long can they hold out, Doug Lute?

  • Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute:

    I think indefinitely.

    I mean, look, the Ukrainians are fighting for their homeland. They have got every reason to continue to resist. And with leadership coming out of President Zelenskyy, I think that's exactly what we should expect.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Dmitri Alperovitch, why are the Russians so determined to try — to do everything they can to capture Mariupol?

    We have been hearing about the land bridge that they want. Explain the significance of that.

  • Dmitri Alperovitch:

    Well, Mariupol is very important to them for two reasons. One, of course, is the importance of the city to Ukraine itself. It is one of the major port cities that they have, the other being Odessa, so, critical to Ukrainian economy, critical to their ability to export their goods and services.

    Before this assault, there was a major industrial city. Of course, now it's been mostly destroyed. And, to the Russians, it's really important because it stands in the way of the corridor that they're trying to create, the land corridor between the Donbass region that they control through these DNR and LNR statelets down to Crimea.

    Crimea is isolated from Russia. It's connected only through a bridge that the Russians built in last few years. If that bridge gets blown up, they can't resupply that peninsula. So that land bridge to Crimea becomes very important to them. And they have to hold Mariupol to have the bridge.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Doug Lute, what would you add to that? What does it mean to the Russian — the Russians' ability to try to make headway to have that land corridor there?

  • Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute:

    Well, I think, as Dmitri just said, it's very significant because it connects mainland Russia to the Crimean Peninsula, which was seized illegally in 2014.

    But it also gives the Russians the potential to move from Crimea westward towards the other big port city on the Black Sea, Odessa, and eventually all the way towards Moldova, where Russia also has troops and has had troops for some years. So it's a potential here to regain momentum in the south.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    To regain momentum, but I hear both of you saying that the Ukrainians are not ready to give up anytime soon.

  • Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute:

    Exactly right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Dmitri, let me come back to you on something else that you have been talking to our producer Dan Sagalyn about today.

    And that is reports from Russia that there is now an open acknowledgement that their troops are exhausted and that there's word that they may be looking at some sort of national military mobilization. What are you hearing about that?

  • Dmitri Alperovitch:

    Well, the key problems that the Russians are facing is that, while they still have a lot of equipment, despite all the losses that they have suffered, they have a lot of armor, they have a lot of planes, they have a lot of ammo that they can still bring to this fight, they don't actually have a lot of troops left.

    A lot of troops have been killed and wounded in Ukraine. The strength of various battalion tactical units has been degraded substantially. So they need a lot more manpower. The Ukrainians actually have the reverse problem. They have a lot of manpower, because they have mobilized everyone over 18 and below 60, but they don't have a lot of ammo.

    They're asking the West for weapons and ammo to help. But for the Russians to continue the fight beyond the Donbass and even Donbass itself will be a very, very tough fight. And it's an open question whether they can even seize that.

    But the idea that they can go on to Odessa, that they can go back to Kyiv region is just not possible without a nationwide mobilization, without being able to bring new troops, hundreds of thousands, potentially even millions of troops that they can only get through nationwide mobilization of their country and the economy for total war.

    And there are calls now on Russian television increasingly asking Vladimir Putin to put the country in that war footing. Of course, Russia is not even calling this a war yet. They're calling it a special military operation. But that's what would be required for them to prosecute this war on a much larger scale.

    And it's not yet clear if Putin is ready to do that. But that would be a very troublesome sign.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But just a quick follow-up. That would take time, would it not, to have the troops called up, to train them, and not to mention to get them into position?

  • Dmitri Alperovitch:

    This would not be a quick operation. You're absolutely right.

    One problem with mobilizing people is, if they're not trained, if they have never held the weapon before, it's going to take time before they can be useful to this fight. So this is something that they are preparing the population on Russian media to try to tell them that this is going to be a long fight that's not going to end on May 9, as President Putin wishes it would.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, finally, Doug Lute, the reports that we're hearing and even acknowledgement at the Pentagon that there is not an endless supply of weapons that the U.S. and other NATO nations have been supplying Ukraine.

    How much of an issue is that?

  • Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute:

    So it's beginning to be significant, Judy.

    We have sent thousands of these Javelin anti-tank systems and thousands of Stinger air defense systems to the Ukrainians. And the Ukrainians are fighting bravely with. These are having a big impact on the fight. But they're also having a big impact on our supply levels.

    And these systems are not easily replenished. It will take years to replenish the stocks back to their prewar stage.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    That is something I know we're going to continue to be looking at and reporting on.

    For now, thank you so much to both of you, Doug Lute, Dmitri Alperovitch. Thank you.

  • Dmitri Alperovitch:

    Thank you.

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