Ukraine's capital under siege
As Russia’s war on Ukraine continues, we go to Kyiv and Washington for analysis.
Guests: Neil Hauer, a journalist with bne IntelliNews and Axios' Jonathan Swan and Dave Lawler.
Credits: Axios Today is produced in partnership with Pushkin Industries. The team includes Niala Boodhoo, Sara Kehaulani Goo, Julia Redpath, Alexandra Botti, Nuria Marquez Martinez, Alex Sugiura, Sabeena Singhani, and Lydia McMullen-Laird. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.
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Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today!
It’s Friday, February 25th.
I’m Niala Boodhoo.
As Russia’s war on Ukraine continues, we’re going to Kyiv - and Washington - for analysis.
Today’s one big thing: the Ukrainian capital under siege.
NIALA: Residents of Kyiv woke up to their city under attack this morning. Ukrainian officials say missile strikes and rockets are hitting residential buildings in the capital Kyiv which has a population of about 3 million. As Russian troops push toward the center of the city, the Ukraine government is urging civilians to fight back with homemade grenades.
NIALA: Joining us from Kyiv is Neil Hauer, a journalist with bne IntelliNews, based in the capital – Hi Neil.
NEIL: Hi. Thanks for having me.
NIALA: Can you share what's happening right now?
NEIL: Yeah, I mean, right now, you know, we're at an apartment downtown, me and a couple of colleagues. Uh, we spent last night in the shelter because we got warning that there was going to be more cruise missile strikes, ballistic missile strikes on Kiev, which was correct. And now we're, we're hearing gunfire and, you know, occasional, distant booms from our apartment in downtown Kiev. So there's clearly fighting in the city. The speed of it today has been pretty overwhelming. You know, it was expected that Russian troops would surround Kiev in a few days, but to have the special forces already entering the downtown to the Capitol and, you know, looking to perform probably at this present moment, trying to perform that decapitation strike in the Ukrainian government that will be brought about is a pretty surreal.
NIALA: We've heard some reports that Ukrainian forces are pushing back Russian troops. What are you hearing on the ground?
NEIL: I mean, whatever sort of initial success they had some areas yesterday, uh, looks to have been largely undone. We know Russian special forces have entered the Capitol and, you know, there's reports that they're, they're storming that they're assaulting government buildings. I just saw a moment ago that Ukrainian members of parliament were given automatic weapons to defend themselves. We're, we're looking at a very, you know, maybe even end game scenario already in Kiev.
NIALA: Do we know where president Zelensky is? We know he said earlier that he and his family are priority targets by the Russians.
NEIL: As far as we know, he's still in Kiev. Every address that he'd given, he's mentioned that he's still in Kiev and we don't have a reason to believe otherwise.
NIALA: Is there a way to describe for us what the mood is like right now?
NEIL: I mean the city is pretty much the streets are just about empty, There's lots of people in the shelters, but with this sort of resilience about them, you know, people just sort of getting through and people here are are sheltering from, missile strikes that we've had on Kiev, uh, early ever about 5:00 AM, 4:00 AM, both nights of the war so far.
NIALA: What's your read on how Ukrainians feel about whether the US should be involved, whether NATO should be involved.
NEIL: I mean, I think there's an understanding that the NATO or the US is not going to move in and, you know, militarily halt the Russian forces. But people do want to see, you know, some sort of like major concerted Western sanctions effort, or, basically complete ostracism of Russia from the civilized world.
NIALA: Neil Hauer is a journalist with bne IntelliNews based in Kiev. Neil take care, please stay safe.
NEIL: I will. Thank you.
NIALA: After the break we head to Washington - Axios’s Jonathan Swan and Dave Lawler give the view from here.
NIALA: Welcome back to Axios Today. I'm Niala Boodhoo.
President Biden gave an update to the nation yesterday. Announcing new sanctions against Russia. At stake for Biden now is the supportive of his own government. With some Republicans blaming him for the invasion and former President Trump going so far as to praise Putin. Axios’ political reporter, Jonathan Swan and world editor Dave Lawler are here to break down all of this for us. Hey guys. Good morning.
First, Jonathan, let me start with you. Who do you think was the audience? What was the goal of president Biden's speech yesterday?
JONATHAN: The goal is to show, uh, an international community united against Russia. So you've got these huge, huge, uh, coordinated sanctions against Russia with the US European union Australia, Japan, Canada uh, New Zealand, all kind of together, uh, hitting major Russian financial institutions, keeping on the table the prospect of personally sanctioning Vladimir Putin. No one thinks this is going to change Putin's calculus. Biden's made clear from the beginning and he reiterated again and again that he will deploy no American forces, uh, to fight Russia inside Ukraine. And, Putin really is up against Ukrainian army as far as the fighting goes.
NIALA: Dave to Jonathan's point, President Biden underscored the unity among and NATO allies against Russia. How important is that? And how unusual is this?
DAVE: It's certainly important for these sanctions to be effective, that the Europeans in particular are on board, they're much more closely integrated to Russia economically than us, so sanctions from them will hurt more. As Jonathan said, nobody is really under the impression that Vladimir Putin is suddenly going to call off this invasion because he's been hit by very strong sanctions. But clearly they want to show some unity and resolve and so acting together is important on that front.
NIALA: President Biden said yesterday, sanctions take a long time. What happens in the interim?
JONATHAN: In the interim, you have very bloody fighting and, potentially, urban warfare in, you know, cities throughout Ukraine. Western, uh, officials are very fearful right now that that cave could fall and that the Ukrainian government could be decapitated. We don't know where Zelensky is. Exactly. We're told he's in the country. So, we're at the beginning of something, not the end of something.
NIALA: We saw yesterday our response in Russia to this that was very different from 2014 and the Crimean invasion?
DAVE: Right, exactly. So you had basically mass shows of public support in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea. This time there wasn't even really an effort on behalf of the Kremlin to build that kind of support. A lot of Russians were very surprised that this invasion happened, especially on the scale that we're seeing. So we did see large protests in Moscow in St. Petersburg, that's despite the fact that these people had been told explicitly that they'd be arrested, if they went out to protest. So there's clearly some discontent in the population. Question is, is Putin actually paying attention to public opinion, and perhaps, uh, we can guess based on his statements that that is not the driving factor for him.
NIALA: So we're just a couple of days into this. What are you thinking about, what are you watching for?
JONATHAN: I'm thinking about the people I know I'm in Kieve. There are people who are. ineffectively almost in a hostage situation and they didn't ask for this, they didn't invite this. This is being inflicted upon them by a man who we have constantly misread in the, in the west and who doesn't appear to be operating especially rationally right now.
NIALA: If we start with the fact that Putin is not a rational actor and that he has been misread, where do you go from here.
JONATHAN: There were just so many. Possibilities for this spiraling out of control. You know, if Putin is doing this massive kinetic, conventional military campaign, he he's potentially also doing a very, very large scale cyber campaign. And you could see not just one or 10 or a hundred, but many, many, many pieces of cyber, uh, weaponry deployed. This stuff is moving so quickly right now, that these conversations go from the theoretical to the immediate, really, really quick.
DAVE: And just to add to what Jonathan said, that the grounds on which Putin justified this invasion, or that Ukraine is not a sovereign country, that it's historically been part of Russia's orbit and that it's unacceptable for it to not be part of that orbit now, uh, Ukraine is not the only country to which Putin could apply that logic. So, the Biden administration, the world has every incentive to try to keep this conflict within Ukraine's borders. Uh, but we can not guarantee necessarily, uh, that it will stay there in the longer term.
NIALA: Axios’ Dave Lawler and Jonathan Swan, Jonathan, Dave, thank you.
DAVE: Thanks Niala.
JONATHAN: Thank you.
One last headline before we go - Yesterday a jury convicted three former Minneapolis police officers on federal civil rights charges in connection with George Floyd’s murder.
They were found to have failed to intervene when another officer, Derek Chauvin, pressed his knee against Floyd’s neck for more than 9 minutes… ultimately killing him. This case is a rare example of the Justice Department prosecuting police officers for inaction. A separate trial on criminal charges against the three former officers is scheduled for June.
And that’s it for this week. Axios Today is brought to you by Axios and Pushkin Industries.
We’re produced by Alexandra Botti, Nuria Marquez Martinez, Sabeena Singhani, and Lydia McMullen-Laird. Our sound engineer is Alex Sugiura. Julia Redpath is our Executive Producer. Sara Kehaulani Goo is our Editor In Chief. Special thanks to Axios co-founder Mike Allen.
I’m Niala Boodhoo. Thanks for listening - and have the best weekend.