Full Episode: The War in Ukraine Continues With No End In Sight

Mar. 19, 2022 AT 8:10 a.m. EDT

As the war in Ukraine enters its fourth week, Russia continues targeting civilians. After Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s emotional appeal to Congress, asking for more military support and a no-fly zone, the panel discusses what's next for Ukraine, and China’s possible involvement in the conflict.

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- The war in Europe continues with no end in sight.

- Being the leader of the world means to be the leader of peace.

- [Reporter] The president of Ukraine pleads with the US for more help as his country faces Russia's brutal attacks, targeting the most vulnerable, including children.

- He is a war criminal

- [Reporter] And President Biden delivers his strongest rebuke yet of President Vladimir Putin, plus.

- [Putin Translator] The Russian people, especially, are able to distinguish true patriots from bastards and traitors. I am certain that this necessary and natural self-cleaning of our society will only strengthen our country.

- [Reporter] President Putin issues a chilling threat to pro-Western Russians, next.

- [Narrator] This is Washington Week. Corporate funding is provided by.

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- [Narrator] Additional funding is provided by the Estate of Arnold Adams, Koo and Patricia Yuen, for the Yuen Foundation, committed to bridging cultural differences in our communities. Sandra and Carl Delay-Magnuson, Rose Hirschel and Andy Shreeves, Robert and Susan Rosenbaum, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and by contributions to your PBS station, from viewers like you. Thank you. Once again, from Washington, moderator Yamiche Alcindor.

- Good evening, and welcome to Washington Week. We're now entering the fourth week of war in Ukraine and Russia continues to brutally target civilians. The images this week are heartbreaking. In Kyiv, after their apartment building was shelled, residents evacuated in tears. Others had to be carried out on stretchers. In Mariupol, a theater was bombed and the days leading up to the attack, that building had clear signs saying it was sheltering children. On Wednesday, in an address to Congress. Ukraine's President, Volodymyr Zelensky, made an emotional appeal. He pleaded with lawmakers for more military support and to impose a no-fly zone.

- Today, the Ukrainian people are defending not only Ukraine, We are fighting for the values of Europe and the world, our lives in the name of the future.

- Despite that appeal, President Biden and most members of Congress remain opposed to a no-fly zone. They are concerned it could lead to a direct military conflict between the US and Russia. Still, after Zelensky's address, President Biden committed more aid to Ukraine.

- The American people are answering President Zelensky's call for more help. America stands with the forces of freedom. We always have, we always will.

- In total this week, the US has committed an additional $1 billion to Ukraine. Meanwhile, despite bipartisan support for helping Ukraine, some lawmakers continue to criticize the president's actions.

- The president really needs to step up his game. He has frequently done the right thing, but never soon enough.

- Joining me tonight to discuss this and more, Jane Ferguson, special correspondent for PBS News Hour. She is in Kyiv, Ukraine, of course, the capital city. Rachel Scott, congressional correspondent for ABC News. And joining me here in studio, keeping me close and warm is David Sanger, a White House and national security correspondent for the New York Times. Thank you, David, for joining our crowded studio. Jane, of course, I have to start with you. This was a heavy week. We saw so many images of civilians being targeted. You've been on the ground talking to soldiers. Talk to me a little bit about where things stand now. And you talked about the unity. Talk a bit about what you're hearing from soldiers.

- Yeah, we've been out, Yamiche, out of the front, outside of Kyiv, especially to the Northeast of here. And of course, the Ukrainian forces have famously fought the Russians to a standstill against the odds and certainly, against many predictions in Washington, DC., and around the world. Talking to soldiers out there at the front, the more professional soldiers holding the front line, you know, they're very much so of the opinion that effectively, a lot of the military aid that's coming in is helping and is working. Things like the anti-tank missiles, the handheld rocket systems like the javelins or the MANPADS, those are helping, they tell us, to take out tanks, to take out helicopters. We've also seen, you know, a huge amount of recruitment here into the volunteer forces. There is a huge sense of the moral high ground of unity and of just an incredible amount of solidarity across the nation with these troops. So they certainly have the morale on their side.

- Well, you're talking about an incredible amount of solidarity, that comes, of course, in the face of Russia targeting so many vulnerable places, including at one point, a school for visually-impaired children. What's the impact of so many civilians and vulnerable people, children, being targeted and killed in these attacks?

- People here are absolutely horrified. You know, they watch the TV news themselves. They're online. They're watching what's happening in cities like Mariupol, in the South or Kharkiv in the East, where essentially you're having these cities hammered, civilian areas, absolutely hammered by artillery and airstrikes from the Russians. And people here are very, very aware that that is an a war crime, that it's illegal to specifically target civilians and civilian areas. There's a real sense here of this nation of people, certainly, these cities that are holding out are somehow being punished collectively for that action. But we're also seeing just people coming together in an incredible way. I've never, in all my years of war reporting, I've never seen people showing up like this in very individual acts of kindness. It's not just, you know, famously the organization of the volunteers here with organizations and those who are going to the front and joining the armed forces. But also you'll get to areas where there's a humanitarian corridor negotiated where some of the civilians are able to escape the fighting and you might just find locals from the local apartment buildings will come down with a tray of sandwiches or hot soup outside Kyiv, outside Lviv Train Station, where people are coming from Kyiv, so they can give them a hot meal. You're seeing these spontaneous acts of solidarity and kindness amongst Ukrainians. They seem incredibly united in the face of all of this.

- David, Jane is talking about them, Ukrainians being incredibly united here. What's your sense of why Russia is choosing to target vulnerable populations, civilians, children? What's the goal, there?

- I don't think it was their first choice. They had a plan and their plan basically called for sweeping across the country in a few days. And, you know, where, as you pointed out, at sort of week three, they thought by this point, they would be sweeping into the West, having already taken Kyiv and the South. For all the reasons you've heard, that hasn't happened yet, partly it has been that they cannot seem to keep their air support in coordination with their ground operation. Partly, it's that the Ukrainians have cut off their supply lines. There's some evidence that the United States and other Western allies have been messing, to some degree, with their communication systems and they've had their own problems with that, that maybe completely unrelated to anything the US did. So they're far behind. And when they're that far behind, they're going back to a strategy that they used in Grozny, for example, in Chechnya, back in the nineties. And in other cases where are under these circumstances, they've just done a reign of terror, not discriminating between civilian targets and others. And that's what led to President Biden finally saying today, what seems obvious to all of us, which is there are war crimes being committed and being committed in Vladimir Putin's name.

- And Rachel, the reign of terror that David just described there, President Zelensky, he brought a video and had an address to Congress. There are some experts, lawmakers, who were saying it was one of the most important speeches delivered by a foreign leader to Congress since Winston Churchill delivered his address to joint Congress during World World II. I wonder though, was lawmakers were crying afterwards, some after that address? What was the impact? What are the changes, if at all, to the actual policy given what the president was asking for?

- Yeah, and I think there's one thing that both Democrats and Republicans, there's a line that they're not willing to cross, and that is the no-fly zone. You heard President Zelensky call for closing the skies. And there is just bipartisan agreement on that front in lockstep with President Biden, where they just really are not willing to go that far, where they wanna keep the national security interests of the United States paramount in first. And so that's simply just off the table for the majority of lawmakers on Capitol Hill. I think President Zelensky has actually been pretty effective in urging lawmakers to act. We saw the pressure that Congress, including House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, put on the White House, put on President Biden to ban Russian oil and energy. And then we saw the White House soon fall with that action. But at this point, so many lawmakers are really directing it back at the president. They've already approved nearly 14 billion in humanitarian and military assistance to Ukraine. And at this point, I don't know, while there are some talk and some ideas of legislation that could possibly be passed, I'm not too sure whether or not we will see as much of an effort to get that much legislation or that much more humanitarian or military through Congress and through both chambers.

- Well, I was gonna ask you as a follow up, I know that there's still some things in the works going, happening in Congress. What other consequences are lawmakers talking about, making Russia pay from Congress? What actions are they talking about, about taking?

- Right and so today, we saw the House pass this legislation, looking at trade sanctions, right? It really just kind of parallels the actions that the White House and the president have already taken when it comes to trade sanctions on Russia. There's so much talk from Republicans. They are still very much outraged over the White House and the Biden administration rejecting that plan from Poland to help facilitate the transfer of those fighter jets. So some Republicans have called for legislation that would push that forward. I think there's also still a lot of concern on whether or not the humanitarian and military aid, the number of nearly 14 billion that has already be approved, is going to be enough. And so Senator Mark Rubio said, that the needs are going to change, week by week and we heard that from President Zelensky, as he was addressing Congress. He says, every week there needs to be new sanctions slapped on Russia, that the battlefield is really evolving at this point. So I think we can continue to see ideas of legislation move forward, but you already have some senators like Senator Joe Mansion saying the president has already taken action here. Do we really need to pass legislation to codify this at this point, if the president has already delivered on that front?

- And something else that we heard from President Zelensky, Jane, this week, was an interview that he did with NBC News, where he said that World War III may have already started, really touching on the idea that President Biden has consistently said, he does not wanna take military action to defend Ukraine because he doesn't wanna start World War III with Russia. How does what Zelensky saying there connect with what you're hearing on the ground?

- We hear very often, Yamiche, when we talk to people that, you know, they say, this is about more than Ukraine. You know, soldiers on the front have said this to me. This isn't just about, you know, Ukrainian territory and Russian territory. This is very much so about Russian expansionism. This is autocracy versus democracy versus a nation state's right to decide its own, to determine its own fate and to determine its own democratic institutions. So when we're talking to soldiers, don't forget, we're also talking to young people, very often. These are young educated, you know, very liberal, often, you know, very Western leaning, young people. So they're saying, this is about way more than this. This is about our ability as a nation and any nation to determine its fate. But, you know, just going off of the issue of military assistance there, as well, to a certain extent, the successes here on the ground by the Ukrainians, they've almost been kind of a victim of their own success in some ways, because when we're talking about, you know, airstrikes and potential no-fly zones, essentially the Ukrainians being able to hold off the Russians has helped the Biden administration to that extent, because we don't have Russian troops marching right towards the border with Poland and NATO, and basically facing off with NATO face-to-face there. Instead, what's happening here is to some extent, working for now. So in many ways, what the Ukrainians are very aware of and they talk about a lot is that they are fighting and dying for democracy in Europe, and that they see it very much so on not just a regional scale, but a global scale.

- Seeing it on a global scale, David, is also in some ways possibly what Russia's looking at, this war as. You have on the one hand, President Putin at a rally just this week. He was being applauded. Troops were, he was saying that it's great that his troops are pounding Ukrainian cities, but we also saw a Russian protestor in what was really remarkable video, a producer run on national television in Russia with a sign that said, no more war. What are the internal dynamics President Putin is having a balance here as this war goes on longer than he thought it might?

- Well, he's running a dictatorship, but he's running a dictatorship that has had protests in the past. And he's usually reacted to them quite harshly. One of the reasons that he was so angry at Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign, was that in 2012 when she was still Secretary of State, she had backed some Russian protestors who had put on some fairly modest protests in Moscow. And I think that was one of the reasons that Putin decided to go into the 2016 election, even if he did it in, you know, a somewhat clumsy way. I think the big question that comes out of this larger global issue that you're raising is what did Putin hope to do if he took Ukraine quickly? And I think, clearly, he was hoping that he'd go into Moldova, maybe back to Georgia, where he conducted a war, a brief one, in 2008, and try to go reconstruct elements of the old Soviet Union. Even if he didn't conquer those countries, that they would be neutralized from turning to the West and part of what he called a Russian sphere of influence. Now he's gotta go recalibrate that a bit because he isn't doing well. And this is what has people worried because if he is now cornered, if the ruble continues to fall, if he defaults on his debt, which looks very, very likely, he could be tempted to scare the rest of the world off from Ukraine by using a chemical or biological weapon something that Secretary of State, Blinken, raised just on Thursday. There are many in the Pentagon who worry that he could use a tactical nuclear weapon, a very small one, but one that would do huge damage as a warning shot to the rest of the world. Hey, I'm serious about this. Get out of my way. And that is part of Russian military doctrine, it's called escalate to deescalate. You raise the level and then negotiate. And that's the really scary element of how this could expand.

- I mean, talking about biological warfare and nuclear warfare as a sort of warning shot is definitely scary stuff. And you've said that American officials are also worried that there are cyber attacks, possibly, that could happen. Talk a bit about that. What could the US response to a cyber attack look like? And what impact could that have?

- Sure. So first of all, cyber is the dog that hasn't barked yet here. All of the early models, Yamiche, of what this invasion would look like started with big cyber attacks on the Ukrainian power grid, the communication system. That didn't happen. We think, but we don't know, in part, because Putin miscalculated, thought this was gonna be a quick war and didn't wanna destroy systems he would need when he was occupying the country. The bigger mystery is why it hasn't happened since and whether it's the United States or other allies who interfered in those cyber attacks. The big concern now, of course, is that he can't reach our financial system without using cyber and that may still be coming.

- Well, the other issue that's really at play here is that China could possibly be factoring into here. President Biden spoke to China's president and in the call, the White House says Biden laid out the consequences China would face if it provides aid to Russia. I'm gonna stick with you, David, for one more question, which is what form of support could China possibly provide to Russia? 'Cause you've said that you think that China might provide some support, likely will they.

- They may. If you've remember that on the first days of the Olympics, Putin went to China, signed an agreement with Xi Jinping, the president of China, that basically established a kind of anti-American, anti-Western alliance. Then he immediately did this invasion. We think the Chinese knew he was gonna invade, but they didn't know he was gonna invade in a way that would reveal his weaknesses. The question now is what are the Chinese gonna to do to bail 'em out? There are only two ways to do it. One is to provide him with some financial backing that would get around the sanctions. The second is to provide him with some drones, communications equipment, other things he's asked for in the way of military equipment. This has gotta be hard for Vladimir Putin. He doesn't wanna be the junior partner in the Russia/China partnership. In the Cold War, the Soviet Union was always the superior partner there, and he doesn't wanna be the vassal state. But he doesn't have any choice because China's the only one here with the power and the resources to bail him out of this.

- And Rachel, I wanna bring you in, because as David's talking about sort of all of the power dynamics here, there's the politics of this, too. You have two things going on here, which is that Russia is becoming very much a bipartisan enemy really of lawmakers on Capitol hill. But you also have people like, I would say, Madison Cawthorn, who called Volodymyr Zelensky, a thug. Kevin McCarthy, though, said that he was wrong, his own member, that he's still backing for reelection. He said that he was wrong. Talk about the Republican politics here in particular, as they've evolved, when we think about where former President Trump was to where Republicans are on their way to.

- Yeah and I think that the Republican leadership is definitely trying to create some distance between some of these small group of GOP lawmakers who have spoken out either weirdly praising President Putin or calling Zelensky, as you mentioned, a thug. We even saw Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, create some distance between former President, Donald Trump, who obviously referred to President Putin, as a genius. And so they are trying to create a very stark divide here. And definitely today, leader McCarthy spoke out against those words, but also still sort of offered his support in this critical election year. This is definitely a interesting dynamic that we are seeing play out there on Capitol Hill, but it's one where Republican leadership wants to be firm on this. They wanna speak out and this idea of Congress being united on this front, united in their support for Ukraine, but also speaking out against Russian aggression. And they're trying to balance this at this point, still slamming President Biden for, in their words, not going far enough, soon enough. And so it's a delicate balance that they're really trying to achieve here, but definitely, leadership drawing the line from this handful of Republican members who have decided to choose those words to refer to Zelensky and or Putin.

- And Jane, you talked a bit about sort of the kindness that you're seeing on the ground, but there is this also, it sounds. like this resolved by Ukrainians, that they will be continuing to defend what could be a months long engagement here with Russia invading their country. Talk about what Ukrainians are telling you in terms of how long they can really fight this war as they are also dealing with kindness.

- It's a question, Yamiche, I put to everybody that I meet, you know, how long can you hold off? Ukrainians say, well, this is our soil. This is our country. So we don't have any choice. We'll hold off as long as we have to. It's not like this is a territory dispute on the border. This is an entire nation that feels, you know, like it's essentially defending its own home. But going forward though, it's worth pointing out that peace talks or these peace negotiations are still, you know, going on, stopping and starting. And we spoke this week, with Zelensky's chief negotiator and he was very bullish and you know, describing the Russians as having been almost kowtowed, the change in tone over the last 20 days, he said, they've gone from making ultimatums to actually talking. So, you know, they're putting forward a very positive and confident outlook that there will be some successful peace talks in the future. Most people here know, you know, they've launched counter offensives, the Ukrainian forces, they've tried to push back the Russians. They just started in recent days. I don't think anybody here really expects the Ukrainians to completely defeat the Russian army and see it on its way. Everyone is very well aware that it's really gonna be a case of getting those peace talks to a more serious place. And they're hopeful that that could happen. But of course, peace talks, ironically, are determined to a certain extent on the battlefield, as well. So everyone's watching very, very closely to see if they can get that breakthrough.

- We have about 30 seconds left. David, jump in.

- Yeah, just worth thinking about what it is that Putin's asking for. He's asking for neutrality, which Zelensky may give him, but he's also asking Zelensky basically to recognize that Crimea and that whole Southern area belongs to Russia, and he hasn't backed off on that. And that's why many here think that the peace talks are a sham while Putin just tries to continue the attacks. And it could be a while before that actually got to be a serious conversation.

- And quickly, do you think that a diplomatic solution here could be likely? I know you said it could be a sham in terms of these peace talks.

- You know, wars end with diplomatic talks. And Putin must recognize he's lost a lot of altitude here. But his temptation when backed into a corner is to double down. And I think that's what we're seeing in the awful destruction of these cities.

- And Putin doubling down, really, I think, gets to the idea of what Jane was talking about, which is that there are these people that are fighting, they believe, for their freedom, for their families, for a country that they love. So a lot to continue to talk about. Thank you so much to Jane, Rachel and David, for sharing your reporting and for coming on. We'll continue our conversation on the Washington Week Extra. This week's topic, President Biden's challenges here and abroad. Find it on our website, Facebook and YouTube. And tune in Monday to the PBS News Hour for live coverage. The Senate confirmation hearings for President Biden's Supreme Court nominee. Ketanji Brown Jackson. That begins at 11:00 AM Eastern. Finally, my heart is with the families and loved ones of journalists killed and injured in Ukraine while covering the war. It's a reminder of the risk we take every day to tell important stories. Thank you for joining us. Goodnight, from Washington.


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