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Perhaps the most surprising thing about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was how surprising it was.
U.S. TV news correspondents had been preparing for a potential invasion for weeks, but to have it actually happen so suddenly was, in the words of one reporter, “jarring and unsettling.”
“There was something very strange about it, hearing about it for weeks, and then it taking everyone by surprise,” CBS News correspondent Holly Williams told The Hollywood Reporter from inside the country Friday, where she has been reporting for weeks.
“On Sunday, people were walking around, strolling around, didn’t really think it was going to happen, eating in restaurants, which we were doing until the day it happened,” says Martha Raddatz, the anchor of ABC’s This Week, who anchored the Sunday show from Ukraine last weekend and continued reporting from the country as the invasion began. “Then that morning there were air raids in Lviv, where we were. That really changed everything, in the way everybody looked at what was happening; it was scary for them, frightening. You had parents trying to explain to their children what an air raid siren is without trying to freak them out.”
The networks were not alone in their surprise. Reuters reported that the head of Germany’s foreign intelligence service, the BND, was in Kyiv when the attack began, and was unable to evacuate by land until Friday.
“Things changed in an instant,” adds Fox News foreign correspondent Trey Yingst. “One day there were civilians in cafes and eating in restaurants in Kyiv’s central square, and the next day there were airstrikes targeting the center of the city.”
“The volume of the warnings coming out of Washington seemed totally at odds with what we were seeing on the ground here,” says ABC News senior foreign correspondent Ian Pannell. “It was like the boy who cried wolf, they kept saying invasion is imminent, Putin is going to attack, they are going to Kyiv. It seemed so outlandish, so unbelievable, so illogical, that nobody could believe it. I didn’t believe it, and I am willing to admit I was wrong, and I think everyone who watches the Kremlin who is based in Russia, they got it wrong.”
For network correspondents, war is a part of the job, but in Ukraine, the stakes seem higher.
“The reason this conflict is different is because it has a nuclear power doing a lot of the charging in mainland Europe, on the borders of NATO. And that is what brings the consequences, geopolitically, to a higher level,” says CNN international security editor Nick Paton Walsh. “That Cold War standoff, the sort of thing that was held in check by the idea of mutually assured destruction. You have got one of the elements of the Cold War, in its new nasty, revanchist, 21st century form, knocking at the door of the biggest military coalition [NATO] in history. It means that all the consequences of the nasty cruelties of what Russia is doing here comes with greater risks attached.”
The threat of such a war spurred on more than a few changes in plans among those covering the story.
“I had been in Iran, in Tehran, covering their anniversary and the nuclear talks,” Raddatz recalls. “I flew back home on Feb. 13, and then headed over here the 15th. I think I saw the last half of the Super Bowl, and then headed over here on Tuesday or Wednesday.”
The ABC team pivoted so This Week could originate from Ukraine, with Raddatz interviewing the acting U.S. ambassador to the country, Kristina Kvien (who left the country a couple days later).
“Trust me I was exhausted after a week in Iran, but I was like, ‘We gotta go, we have got to do it,’” Raddatz adds.
CBS News correspondent Christina Ruffini had been in Munich, covering the Munich Security Conference, and had stayed in Europe with plans to cover a potential meeting between Russian Foreign Secretary Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. She had already been booked on a flight back to the U.S. when she called an audible and asked to travel to Poland to cover the invasion from the Ukraine-Poland border.
What she saw there on the Polish side of the border reminded her of “covering a hurricane,” with long lines for gas, and empty ATMs.
“We checked into our hotel and as we were checking in, a woman with two screaming babies walked by us,” Ruffini recalls. “The desk clerk looked, quite frankly, like he was about to have a stroke, and my producer, who speaks Polish, Russian, a little bit of Ukrainian, German, and English, she said they were speaking Ukrainian.”
“So we asked the desk clerk, and he said, in the last day they had completely booked up, almost the entire city [of Rzeszow] had booked up with Ukrainian refugees, and they weren’t leaving in the near future,” Ruffini adds.
Ultimately, it is moments like that which have stuck with the correspondents on the ground — parents explaining air raid sirens to kids, families sheltering in the subway — that underscore to those watching around the world what the stakes in the conflict really are.
“The core of any conflict are the people who are trapped in the middle, the people who don’t get a vote. The kids, the elderly, the ones who didn’t choose war,” says Pannell, who had returned from a visit to a local Kyiv synagogue a few hours earlier, just before Shabbat began.
“We met the rabbi and his wife — you meet amazing people in war zones — they both had Israeli passports, but they also both had U.S. visas. They could have left for their safety, but they chose to stay and care for their community,” Pannell adds. “They now have 50 people living in the synagogue, and they are caring for 800 in the community, including one 104-year-old Holocaust survivor, who fought the Nazis as a young woman when they occupied Ukraine. And she said to the rabbi’s wife, ‘Are the Russians coming to kill me? Please will you stay and look after me?’ And that is why they stayed behind.”
It is those powerful stories that have been a refuge from the combat footage and destruction and air raid sirens (one of which went off in the background while Pannell was speaking with THR).
“As journalists it is pretty easy to just focus on the explosions and the bullets and the military action taking place, but we have to find a way to humanize these stories, because we have to make people care about these stories happening thousands of miles away,” Yingst says. “The story is the Ukrainian people. It is the soldiers on the front lines, the children here, who are going to grow up in a different environment because their country is being invaded.”
“They are so innocent amid the backdrop of tragedy. I think they represent something much greater,” he adds. “We were in the subways of Kyiv, with civilians who were hiding from the Russian air campaign, and talking with these civilians, there was this little kid, maybe 4 or 5 years old, just playing with his dad. Running through his legs, running around laughing and joking. I just thought for a second, this is what’s at risk here, his future is at risk.”
And it isn’t just the children, many of the Ukrainian soldiers fighting Russian forces are young as well. Williams says she spent “a lot of time” with them in recent weeks in the eastern part of the country, where Russia-backed separatists have been fighting the Ukrainian military for years.
“It is really upsetting. I suppose some of the people I’ve met have already lost their lives. And they are very young people. It is very distressing,” Williams says. She recalled traveling with some of the Ukrainian forces:
“We were on a military truck, driving through the mud, and one of the young soldiers we were with had picked a flower, one of the first spring flowers that had grown in the fields,” she recalled. “And he was in the back of this truck, and he was just kind of bathed in golden light, carrying this little flower that he picked. When I look back at that, it seems very poignant.”
Across the border in Poland, Ruffini says that almost all the refugees she encountered were women and children, with the government of Ukraine barring most men from leaving the country so they can help with defending the cities.
“We did run into a younger guy, I think he was in his early 20s, and he was working here in Poland, so he was already out,” Ruffini says. “But he was waiting for transportation to go back into Ukraine because he said he has military training, and he is going to go back in and fight for his country.”
But the reporters covering the conflict, of course, can eventually leave and return home (Raddatz spoke to THR from Slovakia after driving for hours from Lviv: “We were told by people who should know that if I didn’t leave today, I would probably be stuck there for weeks.”). In order to bring the images and stories of that conflict, however, they have to stay somewhat in harm’s way until it is safe to leave. Pannell likened it to “hostile camping” because of all the supplies and training required.
“Kyiv is being encircled by Russian forces. It is a pretty sobering thought that you might not be able to get out, you may have to hunker down,” he adds.
But for all the work involved, the war in Ukraine is also personal for many of those covering it. Not only because of the lives lost, and the refugees looking for safety, but because of what it portends for the future.
“This particular war is significantly more troubling for me, as someone who is a European, because it is the specter of something beginning for possibly the decade ahead, which may impact the security of an entire continent that has been spoiled from harm, from stability, for so long,” Walsh says. “As a reporter, there was a feeling that maybe there might be a pause in that churn of conflict [after Syria and Afghanistan]. And here is something coming along which was born of fears people had, that Putin had a few wires that were disconnected, or short-circuited, and here we are watching something unfold which I fear is not going to stop at the Dnieper River [which travels through Kyiv].”
It was what Raddatz said was the most “sobering moment” of her time in Ukraine. She had been speaking all week with a senior U.S. defense official, who had told her just a few hours earlier what they thought would happen when Russia attacked.
“We were all standing by for the invasion to start, and we were waiting for this to happen. He texted me, this senior Pentagon official, and said, ‘You are likely in the last few hours of peace on the European continent for a long time to come. Be careful.’ That was pretty sobering, and it brought the importance of the story home,” Raddatz recalls. “What is really scary is what happens next.”
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