Melissa Harris-Perry: Welcome to The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. Something unthinkable has happened. Russia has launched a full-scale attack against Ukraine.
Speaker 1: [Foreign language].
Melissa Harris-Perry: At roughly 6:00 AM local time in Russia, President Vladimir Putin announced via television that Russia would be engaging in a "Special military engagement." Almost simultaneously, the United Nations condemned the action.
Speaker 2: Russia's attack on Ukraine is tantamount to an attack on the UN and every member state in the chamber tonight. The Security Council is charged with adjudicating threats to peace and security.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Minutes later, explosions were heard in Kyiv and other cities in Ukraine. Ukrainian president, Zelenskyy, repeatedly took to the airwaves, becoming increasingly defiant throughout the deadly Ukrainian morning. He outlined a coalition of support that his nation desperately needs.
Speaker 3: [Foreign language].
Melissa Harris-Perry: Speaking with Yaroslav Trofimov, who is chief foreign-affairs correspondent for The Wall Street Journal and is in Kyiv. We spoke with him on Thursday afternoon, Ukrainian time. Yaroslav, let me begin by just asking, how are you doing today?
Yaroslav Trofimov: Today, there's nobody really expect it would happen in Ukraine, started [unintelligible 00:02:01] in the morning with airstrikes over the country, dozens, maybe hundreds of targets were hit. Then land invasion all over the borders of Ukraine, north, and south, and the east. Basically, an airborne assault into the outskirts of Kyiv.
Melissa Harris-Perry: When we spoke earlier this week, you described the capital as pretty calm and said to me then just as you just said, that there was disbelief about the likelihood of an invasion. Restaurants were open, all of that kind of thing. I'm wondering now if that calm is holding?
Yaroslav Trofimov: No, the calm is not holding at all. There have been casualties, there are probably hundreds of people killed all over Ukraine in the initial hours of destruction and invasion. The families, young people, people with children are trying to free the capital, Kyiv. The highways to the west are clogged. Pretty much everything in the city is closed, except some grocery stores. People are lining up to get cash out of ATMs while they still work and to get gas. There are giant lines at the gas stations.
It's really a serious war. The city has been bombed. There have been civilian casualties in Kyiv as well, and everybody's bracing for the arrival of Russian troops to the outskirts possibly, even today.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Obviously, businesses, schools, workplaces closed with this rush to get financial resources to get gas, to get out. Again, are phone lines working? Are other aspects of the infrastructure holding at this point?
Yaroslav Trofimov: For now, there is electricity. For now, the phone lines and the internet work, but nobody knows how long it will last. Russian military has the capacity to shut it down if they wish to do so. This is really an all-out assault that seeks to emulate Ukraine's existence as a separate country. President Putin said so much. He said he wants to put Ukrainian leadership on trial as war criminals.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That discourse about Nazism. President de Lenski pushed back, obviously, quite hard on that, talking about his own familial connection with the Jewish people, his own grandfather's experience. In fact, instead saying that Putin's invasion here is parallel to Hitler's, can you just remind our audience which might not know this history as well, a bit about this World War II and history around Naziism what is being evoked in this language?
Yaroslav Trofimov: Ukraine was ravaged during World War II. Some 8 million Ukrainians, of Jewish faith, of Christian faith, of Muslim faith, died during the war. People who fought in that war included the parents of [unintelligible 00:04:53], people who fought in that war included the grandfather of president Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Yes, it's true there are some fringe united groups in Ukraine as there are in pretty much every other country, but President Putin has [unintelligible 00:05:07] on their existence of [unintelligible 00:05:09] party, that get maybe 1% or 2% in elections if at all, to paint the entire Ukrainian state as neo-Nasizm is ludicrous. At the same time, as president Zelenskyy pointed out, is this naked war of aggression is really something that, I hope, we haven't seen in Europe since late 1930s, where [unintelligible 00:05:30] moved armies across Europe to wipe out nations like Poland.
Melissa Harris-Perry: In fact, Zelenskyy attempted to directly address the Russian people, given state control of media in Russia, will the Russian people ever have an opportunity to actually hear his direct appeal to them?
Yaroslav Trofimov: Some Russian people will see, social media is not blocked in Russia, and that video is all over Facebook and Telegram. Many, many years of Russian propaganda depicting Ukrainians as beholden to the Nazis as a hostile people that seeks to harm Russia, have really affected the mindset. This invasion, I think, before it began, it was quite popular according to [unintelligible 00:06:16] from Russia.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Can the Ukrainian military if well backed by-- and armed by NATO, is this a military that can actually repel Russian forces, or is this just a dramatically lopsided military scenario?
Yaroslav: [unintelligible 00:06:32] current state, Ukrainian military that was denied its request to buy advanced air defense systems, is really naked in the face of the Russian onslaught. Russia got complete air [unintelligible 00:06:43], they have taken out the Ukrainian air defenses and having just killed people from the air. The only way the Ukrainians could defend their land is by taking the [unintelligible 00:06:55] to cities, to urban environments where the air force is not as effective unless the Russians have decided to [unintelligible 00:07:01] the entire neighborhoods the way they have been doing in [unintelligible 00:07:03].
Melissa Harris-Perry: Is there anything we are missing in US-based coverage of what's happening there? Any key factors that we're not seeing because we're less connected to the history, culture, and politics of the space?
Yaroslav Trofimov: I think, really, what's important is that something unthinkable has happened. Even a day ago, yesterday, it was hard to imagine [unintelligible 00:07:26] see that this could actually happen, that there will be Russian plays in the skies. They're dropping bombs on innocent civilians in a country that hasn't done anything to Russia. It is not a threat to Russia. Just because President Putin cannot accept the fact that Ukrainians are different and want to decide to their own political direction.
Melissa Harris-Perry: The last time something unthinkable like this happened was World War II.
Yaroslav Trofimov: Exactly.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Yaroslav, thank you so much for joining us today on The Takeaway.
Yaroslav Trofimov: Thank you.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Yaroslav Trofimov is chief foreign-affairs correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. We spoke with him from Kyiv on Thursday afternoon, Ukrainian time. I want to bring in Robin Wright, a columnist at The New Yorker and a Wilson Center distinguished fellow. Robin, thanks for joining us.
Robin Wright: Good to be with you on this sad day.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I want to talk about this sense of disbelief that we just heard about. Is it a shared sense of disbelief with US officials and NATO allies as well?
Robin Wright: I don't think at all. The United States and its allies have been warning about this now since December, and in very specific ways and in ways that are unprecedented in terms of the details provided by intelligence of how Putin has deployed his tanks, troops, and artillery around three frontiers of Ukraine. I think there's not disbelief. This is one of the most predictable wars we've ever seen.
Melissa: President Biden so far has been adamant. He's not sending US troops directly into Ukraine to fight. Is there a red line that could change that for the President?
Robin Wright: I think the only red line for now is if Putin manages to send his troops beyond Ukraine's borders into a NATO ally, and then the NATO charter would be invoked and the United States would be deploying its troops already in Europe to defend its allies.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You heard me ask him towards the end of that conversation about whether or not Ukraine, if well backed by NATO, has the capacity to repel Russian forces here. Is that going to be enough, or is Russia just simply going to be able to overwhelm this nation?
Robin Wright: Russia is the largest and best-equipped army in all of Europe. The Ukrainian military is about a quarter of a million strong. It doesn't have the same kind of equipment or airpower that Russia does. It may be able to hold off the Russians a little bit, but I suspect it could very soon turn into an insurgency. The question, of course, is whether the government can hold in Kiev, and if it can't, if it moves elsewhere, or if it's destabilized, it's going to become a real problem, I think. One of the first things any country does in the beginning of a war is try to destroy another country's command and control centers.
I think that's what the Russians did in their initial bombardment. This is going to be a real challenge for Ukraine. Yes, I expect some resistance, but the fact is that Russia is the much mightier power and it's going to be difficult. This is, again, one of the key issues is NATO does not include Ukraine. It's very unlikely that neighboring countries are going to try to get involved in a way that would really become the third world war.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What does this mean for Ukraine's neighbors?
Robin Wright: All of them are deeply sensitive and vulnerable to Russian aggression. No one knows whether Vladimir Putin will stop at Ukraine's borders or whether he will try to move on other former Soviet republics and allies. The United States is responding to that by deploying more forces and equipment in the Baltic States, in Poland, I suspect you'll see more activity in the next weeks. We're moving troops from further away countries, such as Italy, into countries that are closer to the Ukrainian or Russian borders, but this is not America's war. I think that's the big challenge. It is a European war but it's not NATO's war. Ukraine has, at the moment, very few military allies to come to its aid as governments that willing to deploy their armies, at least so far.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, clearly we are willing to deploy our sanctions. You recently spoke with William Taylor, the former US ambassador to Ukraine who said that whether or not these sanctions or any other measures work is really "Up to Putin." Do you expect that this move into a full-scale bloody war here means that Putin has made a decision that they are not going to be effective?
Robin Wright: Sanctions will not stop Putin. I don't think anything will stop Putin. He's delusional now. He really believes that the future of Russia depends on the future of Ukraine. That Ukraine has been part of Russia going back more than a millennium. He quotes people like Oleg the Prophet. This is not something that Putin is going to give up. He's had multiple opportunities to do that. Multiple overtures by NATO, by Joe Biden, by Emmanuel Macron the leader of France.
Everyone has reached out to try to say, "Don't invade, we'll discuss issues of Russian security" and Putin seems unwilling to engage. It's truly unbelievable. You have to wonder about Putin's stability, given that the-- if is going to be a miscalculation for him long-term. Short-term, he is likely to make some military success. Long-term, he becomes the world's number one pariah.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Robin Wright is a columnist at The New Yorker and a Wilson Center distinguished fellow. Thank you for making the time for us today, Robin.
Robin Wright: Thank you.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Okay, everyone quick time out. We're back with more in just a moment. We're back now with more coverage on Russia's unprovoked attack on Ukraine. Let's go now to Anton Troianovski, who is Moscow bureau chief for The New York Times. Anton, how's it going for you there in Moscow?
Anton Troianovski: Well, it's obviously a tremendously shocking day here in Moscow. People here didn't really believe that this could happen. A war with Ukraine was so unthinkable that even as American officials were warning of an upcoming invasion, people here were convinced it was not true, that Putin was bluffing, that the Americans were spreading propaganda. The fact that it has happened today, people are just stunned.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm wondering with breaking through that possibility if this shifts, particularly, in Moscow, in Russia for the Russian people, what they understand about what this situation is, does it change how they read what they've been told?
Anton Troianovski: Certainly depends on as with everything in Russia. It depends on whether these people are people who get their information from television which is controlled by the state or from the internet where you still have independent media. People who buy into the Kremlin narrative on state TV are probably going to continue to buy into it. This is being sold as not an invasion, it's being sold as a limited special military operation in Eastern Ukraine to protect Russian speakers there who allegedly and falsely the Kremlin is saying are coming under genocide by Ukrainian forces. It is significant that there are many other people right now, including I'm seeing some, for instance, a comedian who's on state TV coming out and saying, "This is horrible."
This changes everything. We're going to see that play out in the next few days and weeks, really have no idea where this goes from here, but yes, it's clear, this is going to fundamentally change the relationship between Putin and the Russian public in many ways.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Indeed. Ukrainian president, Zelenskyy made a direct appeal as this was beginning directly to the Russian people and suggesting, saying, "I know you've been told that this will free us, but we are already free." Given what you've said here about state media, I'm wondering if that direct appeal has any possibility not only of affecting the Russian people but ultimately, of affecting Vladimir Putin. How relevant is the public opinion of the Russian people to Vladimir Putin in terms of the decision-making going forward?
Anton Troianovski: Honestly, I think we're seeing today, it's less relevant than people thought. The Kremlin traditionally has been pretty obsessed with public opinion, doing a lot of surveys and portraying Putin as deriving his power and authority from public support. You can't imagine that a war, a bloody land war with an unimaginably human cost is something that Russians would support. Indeed there's no spontaneous jubilation in the street that we're doing this. No, none of that is happening.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Help me understand what the incentive structure does look like here for Putin. I do understand that we are repeating that this is about his desire to bring back this particular empire. I guess I'm enough of a rational choice theorist to believe that there's got to be some set of either economic or political international incentives that Putin sees as making this worth the risk, worth the bloodiness, worth even the risk of a decline of public opinion among his own people.
Anton Troianovski: I have to say for the moment that rationality is really hard to see because he's made this all about resisting NATO, saying that NATO in Ukraine is an existential risk for Russia. Well, even if he somehow manages to take over Ukraine and prevent it from ever being a NATO ally, demilitarize it, as he has said today, the rest of NATO is going to be even more united, even more strong force posture near Russia's borders. That just doesn't make sense. Obviously, this is taking a huge hit to the Russian economy, huge hit to Russians standing in the world. We're still searching for that rational thing here. You're right. It's unclear.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I am curious about what all of this may mean for Western journalists, for your own freedom to report. If you expect this current situation to impact your freedom as a foreign journalist.
Anton Troianovski: It is widely expected that this war will lead to a further crackdown on the sent and independent media here inside Russia, but also, all these crackdowns have had far more dire repercussions for Russian journalists than they have for foreign journalists. There's still a significant Western press corps here. Whereas, if you look at Russian independent publications, they have been massively under pressure.
Over the last year, several have been forced to shut down. Others have been forced to declare themselves for an agents. Many Russian journalists have fled the country. It's really the Russians up here that are going to have the biggest impact.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Anton Troianovski is Moscow bureau chief for The New York Times. I can't tell you how much I appreciate you joining us. Please, try to stay as safe both for you and for your colleagues in Russia there as you can.
Anton Troianovski: Thanks very much, Melissa.
Melissa Harris-Perry: If you have any questions on what's happening in Ukraine or if you have family there, call us and share at 877-8-MY-TAKE. That's 877-869-8253, or send us a tweet at The Takeaway. Thanks so much for listening. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, and this is The Takeaway.
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