In the Bubble with Andy Slavitt: Our Shot

On the Ground with the Citizens of Ukraine (with Jim Sciutto)

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As Russia cracks down on the truth about the war in Ukraine, Andy connects with Jim Sciutto, CNN’s Chief National Security Correspondent, on the ground in Lviv. Jim tells Andy about some of the Ukrainians he’s spoken with: a member of parliament, a law student-turned-volunteer medic, and a family fleeing to safety. They also discuss the convoy outside Kyiv and what Putin’s next steps may be.

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Andy Slavitt, Jim Sciutto

Andy Slavitt  00:18

Welcome to IN THE BUBBLE. I’m your host, Andy Slavitt. It’s Monday, March 7th. We have an incredible episode today. I spoke with Jim Sciutto. He’s CNNs Chief National Security Correspondent and he co-anchor to CNN Newsroom. For the last couple weeks, he’s been in Ukraine, and it caught him in Lviv. She’ll hear Jim is a tremendous journalist, he puts what he sees and hears into context for the benefit of those who are going to watch read or listen to his reporting, will get to hear the truth on what is happening on the ground with people of Ukraine directly from sources. That’s a luxury that people in Russia do not have access to right now, because CNN and a number of other Western outlets had to stop broadcasting in the country, and I’ll tell you a little bit more about that in a couple minutes. You know, good and honest reporting is always essential, but perhaps ever more so than during wartime. Truth as the saying goes, is the first casualty in war. And the sad reality of this particular war is that truth is less and less accessible for the Russian people. Putin has long persecuted and jail journalists, we know that who have dared to try to tell the truth about him. But this last week, he took things to yet a different level. Now, in fact, you can be jailed even for using the word “war” in Russia. Echo of Moscow, which is Russia’s last independent radio station was taken off the air. PBS News Hour was there as the signal went silent.

Andy Slavitt  03:35

Imagine National Public Radio being taken off the air or whatever independent source of news that you have listened to day in and day out. TV rain, which is the last independent TV network in Russia stopped broadcasting after authorities ordered them to close over their coverage of the war in Ukraine. Russian authorities have prohibited media, as I said from using the word war, the state-run media outlets described the war as a special military operation. In a video that has since gone viral, obviously not in Russia, of course but elsewhere. The entire TV rain staff resigned on air. Their last words were no to war. They then cut to Tchaikovsky Swan Lake, the famous ballet.

Andy Slavitt 

I’m old enough to get the significance of that references anyone else? old enough to remember this? It’s a nod to Soviet times when state TV would air the ballet on loop during momentous events. Like the death of Brezhnev, the death of Yuri Andropov, the death of Chernenko in the 80s. Even the attempt to overthrow Gorbachev in 1991. So it became a signal to Soviet viewers that something was amiss in the country. And it’s certainly a symbol that something’s amiss now.

Andy Slavitt 

In further crackdowns, the Kremlin has blocked Facebook. After the social media network placed restrictions on state owned media, […] president of Global Affairs, Nick Clegg, who you recall has been on this show, and you might want to go back and listen to this. Tweeted, soon, millions of ordinary Russians will find themselves cut off from reliable information, deprived of their everyday ways of connecting with family and friends. In silence from speaking out, we will continue to do everything we can to restore our services so they remain available to people, to safely and securely express themselves and organize for action means they we will about Facebook, but it is the way that the world communicates to one another. And access to Twitter is also blocked in Russia, which is the way I communicate. President Putin signed a law punishing those who intentionally spread what they deemed to be fake news about the military with up to 15 years in prison. That’s true, if you’re a journalist, if you’re a citizen, anyone, as a result of that lot, a number of Western news outlets including BBC, Canada’s public broadcaster CBC, and Bloomberg News have temporarily suspended their reporting in Russia. Now, CNN has said that they will stop broadcasting in Russia as well. The Washington Post has done something clever; they’ve removed the byline datelines from the reporter stories coming out of Russia to ensure their staffs safety. Let’s hope that works. So what is the ground truth, as we’ve been hearing it on in the bubble, that Putin after failing to take Ukraine quickly, is patiently and methodically devastating the country that civilians in Ukraine are not part of Putin’s accidental bombings, but are actually casualties of his targeted in indiscriminate warfare. There’s a pretense of creating civilian corridors and Ukraine. But Jim was reporting as you’ll hear, suggests something quite different. And that close to a million and a half people so far have left the only homes they’ve ever known. In a country of over 40 million people. Some estimates are that millions more will be displaced. That Ukrainians are fighting bravely, despite being outnumbered and encircled, that Russia despite overwhelming force, is having a tougher time than they ever thought.

Andy Slavitt  08:14

And that Western pressure and support which include sanctions, aid, weaponry, and diplomatic outreach, are not sufficient to deter Russian aggression without more forceful support. By the way, you can hear about those efforts on last week’s in the bubble podcast with David Frum. And finally, the final ground truth I would leave you with is that Ukraine, if it were to fall, would likely be only the beginning. So listen for those truths. In this interview, listen also, for what is captured in the flocking of people away from their homes. And try to imagine this idea of becoming a refugee, being chased out of your country. Now, over there, in western Ukraine, it’s freezing. People are without food. Aid organizations, Romania, Poland and inside Ukraine are preparing as many hot meals as possible to welcome them. I’ve been in touch with Chef Jose Andres who is on the ground with his organization, World Central Kitchen, in the bubble. Thanks to you, our listeners and to our sponsors, has just donated $25,000 to world central kitchen. And we will make the same size donation to an aid organization who is working with refugees in Yemen. So thank you for being a part of this. As you listen to the plight of these families, you will get the sense as I do that this could be any one of us. You’re about to hear Jim’s recount a moving story about seeing one such family trying to escape Lviv. amidst all the chaos and fear people, fleeing to safety, heard this as a pianist played what a wonderful world outside the station.

Andy Slavitt  10:08

That clip was posted to Twitter by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Andrew Marshall. The power of a free press. Here’s Jim Sciutto.

Andy Slavitt 

So you’re staying in the Lviv? Can you tell us what you’re seeing on the ground? Sure. So

Jim Sciutto 

Sure. So I started here first in Kyiv, the capital and then move down to the Lviv. The concern being as Russia advances on the capital, that part of the attack plan would be cutting power, possibly blocking transmission. So Lviv, we figured was a good fallback zone where you can still be in the country, but have reliable communications transmission, etc. And Lviv has been, you know, compared to Kyiv today, it’s been more calm, things have been more open. You know, we haven’t seen explosions in town, we get air raid, sirens regularly and cause like we had one just a few minutes ago to go down to the shelter here. And that’s really from what we can tell this overflight. So planes flying over. But so far has not been a focus of the Russian attack, what it is, already is a waystation for folks leaving the country. So you see a lot of folks walking down the street, with their bags, packing their cars, and going west, typically across the border into Poland to get out, basically, to get out.

Andy Slavitt 

I understand you recently saw a father on the streets of the Lviv, who had a kid’s bike back to do his car’s trunk. And, you know, I think that struck me in the sense that sometimes you can lose a sense of what’s happening with all of the numbers, 2 million refugees. And yet hearing something like that, I think really helped bring things into, I think, a clearer view of how people are being affected on the ground, is there is there any general sense of the public feeling, what they’re experiencing?

Jim Sciutto  12:36

Well, tell you what I saw there. So what you’re seeing is people deciding what to leave with, right beyond themselves and their families. And I saw a father in a small car with a tiny trunk, it was already jammed, and he had this little red bike, that he was trying to find space for it, in there and couldn’t quite find space for it, I was imagining, because my daughter has a little red bike. And I was imagining being in the same position and not being able to take something that was special to her, and having to break the news to her. And I’ve seen people who are leaving without cars, right? Just on foot, you know, hopping trains or buses to the border, where they’ve got to boil their lives down into two roller bags, right? And what would you put in those bags? If you had to leave with a few days’ notice, for all of us, it brings home that this is not I feel like that we look at a refugee crisis in Europe, although it’s happened more recently, if you look at say the Syria war, but in general within Europe, we look at that as being from another era you know, back to World War II, in this kind of volume, you know, million people in a week have fled this country. And you feel like it should belong to another era. But it doesn’t, it’s happening before our eyes. And it’s remarkable it’s jarring and the people here have seen it in their faces over the course of the, been in Lviv about 10 days now I’d say coming up on two weeks and when I first got here, everything was open and it felt different from the Capitol restaurants were open and you go into a bar and get a drink and you know that kind of thing and one by one slowly the places have closed and you see it and people’s faces, their faces you know that look right, the look we all get when we’re worried concerned and you see it now and the place is slowly shut down like the country is shutting down. And that’s what happens when a war starts, right?

Andy Slavitt  14:40

And your worries span all the way from saving the lives of your family to somehow trying to convince your children that there’s some element of normalcy, whether it’s a bike or whatever else you choose to put it to that bag, it’s an amazing and it probably does feel like it happened so quickly. We’ve all been watching you, and you’ve done some incredible interviews, including with a Ukrainian MP. Tell us what you learned from her?

Jim Sciutto

Well, she’s, I’m gonna tell you this is a tough country with tough people, men and women, and men and women are in military fighting and uniform and dying, sadly, men and women and governments. And she was I asked her about these peace talks that are going on. I said, do you think that there’s any hope in them? You know, you have Ukrainian and Russian officials meeting just at the border with Belarus, and they’re talking every day. And she said, she’s created a line, she said, when Putin talks peace, bring your Kalashnikov, you know, bring your AK 47. It sounds flipped. It sounds a little dark. But if you’re Ukraine, and you were first invaded by Russia, eight years ago, in 2014, when Russia took Crimea and the south and kind of sliced off pieces of eastern part of the country. And then the year before that, when you had popular protests here known as the Maidan against the sort of Russian puppet leader here who was corrupt, and you didn’t want to hear didn’t want to be your president. And when you had those protests and 100 people got shot, you know, by Russian backed Ukrainian forces, you can understand why they are skeptical to say the least they don’t trust a word that comes out of the guy’s mouth. And, by the way, I think we should all share that skepticism. Because remember, until the day Russia invaded a week ago, you had Sergeĭ Lavrov saying we’re not going to invade. We have no plans to invade you, you had Putin and others talking about meeting and now there was this talk of Putin and Biden meeting again, and meanwhile, they were just masking the forces on the border so they could come in, it’s so cynical, you know, it’s so deeply poisonously cynical. And it’s one thing to watch, it’s another thing to live it as these folks are doing right now.

Andy Slavitt  18:13

I bet. You’ve been really giving the world a that just a sense of the news, but it’s the feeling for what’s going on. I was really struck by an interview you did with a volunteer medic. It was one of the probably the most moving things that I think we’ve seen anywhere across what’s happening in Ukraine. Tell us about her. And, you know, there’s an element of that conversation, which I really would love your view on. There’s talk now over these corridors to get civilians out of Ukraine safely agreed to by Russia. But I get the sense from this interview, that she’s not convinced that civilians aren’t being directly targeted, as opposed to just casualties.

Jim Sciutto  20:40

Yeah, I asked her straight up. I said, Listen, you know, the Russians claim. They’re not targeting civilians deliberately. The US says it suspects and has evidence and she laughed, kind of a dark laugh and said, of course they are. You know, of course, they’re targeting civilians. She says, I’ve seen it. And by the way, every day, we as we’re covering the story, we try to be careful, because you want to know it before you report it. But just watch the videos and the images you see, schools and residential areas and hospitals. And, you know, they don’t get hit unless, at the minimum, you’re indiscriminate or because the places that are getting hit have no military targets. You know, they devastated an administrative building in downtown Kharkiv the other day, an office building, you know, government office building, and they just fried it.

Andy Slavitt 

Do you think this is a function of Putin’s frustration? That things didn’t happen as quickly as he imagined, at least in the capital city?

Jim Sciutto 

Yes, the original code according to US intelligence assessments. I’ve been reporting on for a week in advance of this. The plan was blitzkrieg strikes, shock and awe on the first night, big aerial campaign, and then the forces swoop in and they have so cowed the Ukrainian military, they hoped that they would put up their hands and it would be over, they thought they would have the capital in 24 to 48 hours. That didn’t happen. So they’ve adjusted their plans. And then I got officials were saying last 24 hours that new plan is slow annihilation, like a bulldozer in first gear, and it doesn’t care what it runs over. You know, and when you look at Putin’s track record, this is not accidental. He has deliberately targeted civilians in a place like Syria, dropping bombs on hospitals. If you go back further to Chechnya, the wars in Chechnya, this horrific campaigns in urban areas that killed 1000s of civilians. So this is the way he fights a war, you know, doesn’t care. And by the way, part of the strategy, because if you scare the heck out of civilians and chase them away, you know, you win, you know, in the worst way possible, he thinks, but you win. And by the way, like the refugee flows, serves his interest because it then impacts neighboring countries, it burdens them with hundreds of 1000s, millions of people. You know, the pace of the Exodus is huge. There’s a million people in a week, you know, it took months to get to that from the Syrian war. So it’s happened very quickly.

Andy Slavitt 

So now to the point of this slow, methodical assault, people are now looking at these images of these reportedly 40-mile-long convoy, sometimes three deep creeping towards Kiev. What can you tell us? What are your sources telling us about what’s going on there. And whether or not that assault is imminent, or whether or not we’re seeing resistance that is actually pushing that back?

Jim Sciutto  24:29

It’s definitely not as fast as the Russians wanted. And this convoy is indicative of Russia’s problems here. So you got 40 miles like crazy thinking how many vehicles can fit in 40-mile-long convoy? It’s hundreds. And it’s a supply issue. They’re not able to get gas to them quickly enough, food supplies, but it’s also a vehicle issue that it’s muddy on either side of the road, and the trucks not maintained well enough a whole host of issues. They can’t go off road so their only option is this two four lane highway which makes them vulnerable and seems to be credible. There are reports that Ukrainian aircraft hit the convoy, there are reports of ambushes by Ukrainian forces on the ground to destroy and then if you destroy some vehicles, and you hope that you blocked the rest of the convoy, so they have not been able to, Russian forces have not been able to surround Kyiv, which is part of the plan, and they’ve been able to kind of circle it and then kind of tighten the noose and suffocated, you know, suffocate the capital city. But meanwhile, they’re dropping a lot of bombs, right in the hurting a lot of people and just keeping up the pressure. And at some point, the US view is that they’re going to cut the power and cut communications, and then cut supply lines. So then you begin to become Stalingrad, right Stalingrad, 2022. You just trying to start with the place.

Andy Slavitt 

Well, they’ve already kind of access to the sea, to your point. Does it just feel like it’s inevitable before Kyiv is overrun? Or does it feel like with support from the West, and grinding things down, that they can push them into a stalemate, you’re combined with the pressure of sanctions, that there is some hope to the field? Or is it just too early to make that kind of calculation?

Jim Sciutto  26:21

It’s tough to say, right? Ukrainian military has performed bravely and better than expected, and it’s inflicted a lot of losses, and it’s held back. A fast Russian advanced, but they’re still outnumbered. And they’re suffering losses themselves, and greater than the Russian losses. So they’re already starting from a disadvantage and losing more, you know, you do the math, in that sense. So, you know, it’s an uphill battle, they are getting aid, they are getting military assistance, the US said this week that they got hundreds of stinger missiles in and you know, Stinger missiles are pretty powerful weapon to take down aircraft, at least low flying aircraft, and they’re getting a lot of those Javelin anti-tank missiles in which should proven very effective. But, you know, they’re still outnumbered and you try to as a reporter, you’re trying to balance the stories that show surprising success by Ukrainian military, while not trying to overestimate the chances of an unusual success or a surprising success. But everyday changes, you know, it’s a little kind of follow your gut and just basically report what you know. And try to put it in context so that you’re not cheerleading and not exaggerating the chances of a surprising outcome here, but also covering that stuff, because it’s already a surprising outcome to some degree, because by a lot of measures, it should have been over already.

Andy Slavitt 

You’re CNNs Chief National Security Correspondent, if anybody has seen these kinds of scenes or these kinds of situations, before it is you and it’s evident in your reporting, the context you bring to this. Do you have a sense for what the next chess moves are in even broadening the context beyond the military context, the sanctions against oligarchs, the sanctions from the Central Bank, the other maneuvers, do they have an effect on someone like Putin at this point in time? What’s your sense of that larger set of moves being made on both sides?

Jim Sciutto  28:30

The sanctions are punitive, but not deterrence. They’re punishing the Russian economy. They’re probably punishing individuals. Although Putin and the oligarchy, they knew some of this was coming, I’m sure they’ve done a decent job of driving their yachts to places where they can’t get confiscated and hiding their money a little bit better. But the economy is suffering, for sure. But Putin is forging ahead and he said so much, you know, Emmanuel Macron, spoke to him. And accordingly, […], Putin said, I’m going to finish this until it’s done. So they’re punitive not to turn. And there’s a limit to which NATO and the US in the West will aid the Ukrainians because they want to help them but they don’t want to make this a straight up fight between Russia and NATO because they fear escalation. They feel that then you have a World War, right? In fact, downside of that is that Ukraine is outmatched, you know, they’re outmatched by themselves.

Andy Slavitt 

Putin is clearly putting the deterrence that he has on the table to make sure that those lines don’t get crossed. And I think that at the end, maybe, as you say, they can wreck the economy. But unless there’s some sort of sufficient domestic pressure, that wrecking the economy creates, you know, it’s unclear how many additional weapons they have, you know, if they don’t put have a no-fly zone and they don’t take those sorts of steps which they’ve itself are clear that they won’t.

Jim Sciutto  30:05

Oh, it’s true. And then it raises a larger question. There are folks in the West who are pushing for more conservative action, including the possibility of a no-fly zone, because they will make the point that okay, yes, you risk war, but which is a big deal. And there’s a reason why Lavrov and Putin virtually every day use the word nuclear to say, hey, you go there, there’s a risk of nuclear war they say publicly, which is what it’s like. It’s scary. It’s hair raisingly scary. But folks like General Wesley Clark, for instance, former supreme NATO commander in Europe and said, okay, yes, that’s a risk. But the other risk is that you lose Ukraine, and then the lesson to Putin is I can take it. I can take the next one too, because you’re not really gonna fight back. You know, what is the next one? Maldova is right across the border here. Not a NATO member. So if you take Ukraine, why can’t they take Moldova, which is tiny by comparison? And you lose a few more yachts, right? And then the ruble drops a bit more, and you sell less oil, but now you’ve got another country, and you’ve already subjugated Belarus, you know, in recent months, and then you think, come in worst case scenario, if Putin believes, as he says, Ukraine is not a country. And that justifies his invasion. He has said he does not believe the Baltic states that Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia really should have independence either. And, yes, they’re NATO members, because he calculated at some point that well, they gave me Ukraine. Are they really going to fight to the death over those places? That’s the word. That’s the argument. You will hear from the folks who say you got to do more now.

Andy Slavitt 

Right. Thank you for being with us. Please stay safe. The highs of the world, particularly because, as you say, so much communication was cut off, really are trained on you. So grateful that you took the time to talk with us.

Jim Sciutto  32:09

Thank you. I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it. Thanks for having me.

Andy Slavitt 

Thank you to Jim Sciutto for coming on in the midst of all that he’s juggling in Lviv. Let me tell you about the shows we have coming up because they are absolutely remarkable. On Wednesday, world renowned aids researcher David Ho will be joining us. David’s career has been defined by what he accomplished in HIV-AIDS research, in fact, finding a cure. And became Times Person of the Year in 1996. And yet again for what he’s been doing and seeing in this second pandemic, he gives us a perspective that nobody else can. Next Monday, Ro Khanna who is on the Armed Services Committee in the House of Representatives. He will talk about what Congress is hearing, and saying and doing in regard to the war in Ukraine, and a number of other things. He’s a fascinating person. Then I will tell you about a few upcoming shows that you’ll hear. Over the course of March, you’re gonna hear Governor Gavin Newsom from California, talking about major battles here, not just the pandemic, but also climate, also managing homeless challenge that is quite extreme, and they shouldn’t have the fires and everything else, you’ll enjoy that. You’re also going to hear Senator Tim Kaine from Virginia, who has introduced a bill around long COVID. He is been battling lung COVID himself for a couple of years. Tim is extremely nice, interesting person. And Jose Andres will join us at some point during the month Jose has been on the ground in Ukraine and in Poland, Romania, and you’ll get to hear from him and what he’s seen what he’s observed. So lots of good shows in the bubble. Lots of great people coming in the bubble. I hope you keep coming in the bubble. And we will talk with you on Wednesday with the great David Hill.


Thanks for listening to IN THE BUBBLE. Hope you rate us highly. We’re a production of Lemonada Media. Kryssy Pease and Alex McOwen produced the show. Our mix is by Ivan Kuraev and Veronica Rodriguez. Jessica Cordova Kramer and Stephanie Wittels Wachs are the executive producers of the show, we love them dearly. Our theme was composed by Dan Molad and Oliver Hill, and additional music by Ivan Kuraev. You can find out more about our show on social media at @LemonadaMedia. And you can find me at @ASlavitt on Twitter or at @AndySlavitt on Instagram. If you like what you heard today, please tell your friends and please stay safe, share some joy and we will definitely get through this together.

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