Arun Venugopal: Welcome back to The Takeaway. I'm Arun Venugopal in for Melissa Harris-Perry. This week marks the 20th week of Russia's war on Ukraine. Back in February, no one would've predicted the trajectory of this conflict, least of all Russian president of Vladimir Putin. In spite of the Russian government's claim of an operational pause in the country, there was a particularly devastating attack this weekend with at least 15 people killed in a missile attack late Saturday that hit a residential area in Donetsk province. Joining me now for a conversation about where things stand is Christopher Miller, world and national security reporter with POLITICO covering Russia's war on Ukraine.
Chris spent 12 years in Ukraine, mostly as a foreign correspondent. Chris, thank you for joining us.
Christopher Miller: Thank you for having me, Arun.
Arun Venugopal: Chris, you returned from Ukraine just a couple of weeks ago, and you've been covering this conflict really closely. In broad strokes, how would you characterize the current state of the war?
Christopher Miller: I think right now what we're seeing is a massive artillery war. It's essentially a game of cat and mouse with heavy artillery systems on the front line in mostly East Ukraine at the moment and Southern Ukraine. What we've got is essentially two armies that are several miles apart from each other just heaving rockets and artillery shells back and forth.
Russia doing that in a much greater number, and in a really devastating way than Ukraine at the moment. The Ukrainian forces are outnumbered in terms of the number of artillery, shells, and weapons that they have, which is why the West is working to rush support to them.
Right now, it's this really brutal, indiscriminate oftentimes shelling of these really dense civilian areas of Eastern Ukraine where Russia is trying to capture these strategic points in the Eastern Donetsk region to push deeper west into Ukraine and to gain more foothold for what many believe will be a larger, broader attack to ultimately take over control of the country. I don't Vladimir Putin has, in any way, this diminished view of the conflict in what he wants to achieve there. In fact, just last week, he said that Russia had just begun and that they would be fighting until the last Ukrainian was defeated. Right now the focus really is on the east of the country for Russia, and Ukraine trying its best to defend that area.
I would say the second part of what's happening right now that's important to keep an eye on is what's happening south, where Russia has a large foothold. They've occupied a large swath of territory that has essentially cut Ukraine off from the [unintelligible 00:02:59] sea and parts of the black sea, and Ukraine is preparing for a counter-offensive and already taking some small towns and villages there to try to force Russia to spread its military thin. At the moment, Russia still has outnumbered Ukraine in terms of personnel, the number of weapons it has, the number of shells that it's firing every day, and I would say still has the upper hand in this.
Arun Venugopal: All of this shelling is happening at the same time that Russia has claimed it was taking an operational pause. What do we make of those kinds of statements? Just hollow talk?
Christopher Miller: No, I don't think it's hollow talk. I think there's some truth to it. Russia has taken all of LuhanskOblast, which is another Eastern province that's beside Donetsk province. To do that, it took a long time. The Russians would've preferred to breeze through and to have the Ukrainians lay down their arms and capture these towns without expending time and energy and shells. Instead, the Ukrainians have put up a really, really tough fight, and the Russian losses in terms of personnel and equipment are massive. It cost a lot to take over these towns in these cities that Russia has taken. This rotational pause is to bring in fresh bodies, rotate out tired ones, and that's why also we're seeing a lot of artillery.
It's one way in which the Russians can hold their positions, not lose ground, and then still soften the ground ahead of them for fresh troops to move through the ruins once they're brought in.
Arun Venugopal: Recruitment efforts are increasingly a problem with Russian soldiers returning from duty complaining of impossible conditions, and they've been forced to offer cash bonuses to soldiers and all kinds of other incentives to try to staff the war effort. What are the stakes now for Russia?
Christopher Miller: That's right. Russia really thought that in just a few days, it would breeze through Ukraine, take over the capital Kyiv, and hoist the Russian flag, or perhaps install its own puppet government and control Ukraine that way. That's not been the case, and a lot of these soldiers we found out through reporting did not know that they were being ordered to go into Ukraine and fight. This has become a much more protracted conflict than Russia had planned, and it's an absolute meat grinder.
What artillery does to a body is horrendous, and when you are on the front line and being fired on by dozens of rockets at a time, shrapnel spring everywhere, what you see if you're lucky enough to survive is absolutely terrible. Most of these Russian soldiers are exhausted if not wounded and the wounds are really, really awful, and they're coming home and their families are seeing what's happening, and young men who could potentially be called up to fight are seeing what's happening. This just isn't a war that I think for ordinary Russians is easy to understand. They've been fed propaganda for years, that Ukrainians are neo-Nazis, which is obviously not true.
What they find when they move into Ukraine is that Ukrainians actually live fairly well, that they are in fact not neo-Nazis, that those types of people that Russian propaganda has pushed in front of them are nowhere to be found. They're getting a dose of reality in some ways. The recruitment effort in this war that just grinds on is chewing up lives every day. I think the estimates of Russian soldiers killed is now in the tens of thousand is a harsh one for Russians to consider.
Arun Venugopal: On the other hand, you've written about the determination and courage of Ukrainians. What can you tell us about Ukrainian morale right now?
Christopher Miller: It's really impressive. This is an existential fight for the Ukrainians. Nobody will tell you otherwise. This is a country that is totally United against fighting its larger imperial neighbor, and they see this fight as the fight for their independence and for the future of the country.
Arun Venugopal: Christopher Miller is a world and national security reporter with POLITICO covering Russia's war on Ukraine. Thanks for joining us, Chris.
Christopher Miller: Thank you.
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