Apr 6, 2023 - Podcasts

Ukraine's crucial spring counteroffensive

Russia and Ukraine have been fighting for months now to control Bakhmut, a city in eastern Ukraine. But the battle has turned into the bloodiest fight of the war so far. It comes as Ukraine prepares to launch an important spring counteroffensive.

  • Plus, the safety issues at dollar stores.
  • And — what about using potatoes in place of Easter eggs this year?

Guests: Axios' Dave Lawler, Nathan Bomey and Kelly Tyko.

Credits: Axios Today is produced by Niala Boodhoo, Lydia McMullen-Laird, Fonda Mwangi and Alex Sugiura. 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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NIALA: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today!

It’s Thursday, April 6th.

I’m Niala Boodhoo.

Today, the safety issues at dollar stores. And - what about potatoes in place of Easter eggs this year? But first, the crucial Spring counteroffensive by Ukraine. That’s our One Big Thing.

The crucial Spring counteroffensive by Ukraine

NIALA: Russia and Ukraine have been fighting for months now to control Bakhmut, a city in eastern Ukraine. And the battle has turned into the bloodiest fight of the war so far. An estimated 20,000 to 30,000 Russian soldiers and countless Ukrainians have died since fighting in and around Bakhmut began last May.

And that’s all before a much anticipated Spring counteroffensive we’re expecting Ukraine to launch. Axios’ senior world reporter Dave Lawler joins us to catch us up. Hi Dave!


NIALA: Let's zoom in on Bakhmut. Can you explain what's happening on the ground right now in Eastern Ukraine?

DAVE: So earlier this week we had a claim from the Wagner Group, which is this group of Russian mercenaries that is quite heavily involved in the fight for Bakhmut, that they had taken the center of the city, the administrative center, and so they said they now legally controlled the city of Bakhmut. The Ukrainians denied that there is really no access on the ground for journalists at the moment. So it's difficult, uh, to very accurately gauge who holds what, but certainly they're still fighting around Bakhmut, this is not over. The White House has been trying to lay the groundwork for a while for the idea that Bakhmut might fall and it would be no huge catastrophe. This is not a major population center. It's not hugely strategic in terms of location, but now that the fighting, as you said, has turned into the bloodiest of the war, it's hugely symbolic.

Uh, and the Ukrainian rationale for continuing to fight for Bakhmut is twofold. One is that they say that yes, they're taking heavy losses, but the Russians are taking even heavier losses so that this is falling more hard on the Russian side. And the other is that if Bakhmut falls, Russia will then be able to try to push onto other towns in the area so that stopping them at Bakhmut makes sense. But again, this is a battle that has been out of proportion with the size or significance of this town in its own right.

NIALA : Dave, what does the map look like now that we are well past a year into this conflict?

DAVE: So Russia is in control of about 20% of Ukraine. The big question is what will the map look like in a few weeks or months because we're waiting on this Ukrainian counter offensive that has been much heralded for some time now. And the stakes of this seem to be getting even higher because the Ukrainians have gotten a lot of equipment, including tanks, since there was last a real shift in the map. So the expectations of what they're gonna be able to deliver have gone up. And also you've heard some wavering from some of their allies about how long they're gonna be able to continue to provide arms and support on the scale that they currently are. So if this is a very successful offensive, the momentum will be back on the Ukrainian side. If it's much more difficult for them to gain territory in the way they did late last year, the conversation could shift in ways that would be favorable to Russia.

NIALA : Yesterday we mentioned that Finland was just admitted into NATO. How does that change the landscape here?

DAVE: Well, it certainly really expands the border between NATO and Russia. Finland also has quite a capable military with a history of fighting against the Soviets. From the Russian perspective, they say that they view this as an act of aggression basically, that they're gonna have to respond to, particularly if NATO troops and equipment are moved into Finnish territory right near their border. Of course, the counterpoint from NATO is that Finland voluntarily joined NATO. There was no sort of coercion to get them into the alliance and that Finland was working quite closely with NATO to begin with, so that this is not some kind of escalation on the western side of the equation. It's quite symbolic in the sense that Finland has been neutral for a long time. And this was the event, Putin's invasion of Ukraine that caused them to fully align with their partners in Europe, and effectively against Russia.

NIALA : Dave Lawler is Axios’ senior world reporter. Thanks Dave.

DAVE: Thanks Niala.

NIALA: In a moment, safety concerns for workers - and shoppers - at dollar stores.


The safety issues at dollar stores

NIALA: Welcome back to Axios Today. I'm Niala Boodhoo.

If you're a bargain hunter, chances are you've shopped at one of the more than 35,000 dollar stores in North America. But while these stores have long been a draw for consumers seeking relief from high prices, shops like Dollar General and Dollar Tree have been accused of widespread safety issues, Axios’ Nathan Bomey reports.

Nathan, first, just how popular are dollar stores with American shoppers?

NATHAN BOMEY: They're increasingly popular. These are stores that play a significant role in the shopping lives of many Americans, and they're real competitors for companies like Walmart and Target. Dollar stores are actually within a mile or two of a large percentage of Americans, and so it's a convenience play for them.

NIALA: So what about these issues? Can we start with concern for workers?

NATHAN: Safety is a real concern for Dollar General, for example, because the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, generally called OSHA, has named Dollar General as a severe violator of safety issues. This is, basically the first company that has actually been labeled as a severe violator for things like fire, electrical and entrapment hazards.

And then Dollar Tree last year, which is of course, dollar General's big rival. They also own the Family dollar chain. They came under fire for all sorts of problems, in particular supply chain issues after this incredible rat infestation at an Arkansas distribution center that ended up actually closing the whole thing down.

NIALA: Nathan. Apart from the rat infestation, which obviously would affect consumers, are there other things shoppers need to be aware of?

NATHAN: Well, Dollar Tree in particular went through several major recalls in 2022. In fact, there was one recall in which they had an 11 page list of products that were affected by recalls. Things like Colgate toothpaste, for example, which they left out in the open for too long. And a product like that is not supposed to be stored in heat.

NIALA: How have some of the retailers responded to this? We should add that you reached out to Dollar Tree and did not get a response. Dollar General did respond, what did they say to you?

NATHAN: Dollar General says that they're regularly reviewing and refining their safety programs, and that they are addressing these issues. They are facing $15 million in fines though. So, which, maybe doesn't hit them significantly in terms of their bottom line because this is a multi-billion dollar company, but it is the largest fine that we've seen to this severe violator program. And so it's a real blow to their reputation in the retail industry.

NIALA: So, Nathan, as consumers, what else should we be aware of when we're shopping, but of course everyone's trying to save money.

NATHAN: Well, I think that you know, we are in an environment in which inflation has been really all consuming, and so I don't think anyone should feel bad about trying to save money. But also, there is a realization here growing that in some cases, at least the safety advocates have accused the Dollar store companies of pinching pennies on safety to save money on prices. I also think this speaks to the workers and the choices that they may or may not have workers at these stores certainly deserve, a safe environment.

NIALA: Nathan Bomey is a business reporter for Axios. Thanks, Nathan.

NATHAN: Thank you.

What about potatoes in place of Easter eggs

NIALA: One last conversation before we go.

With Easter fast approaching - and the prices of eggs still high - the potato industry is giving people a budget-friendly alternative to Easter eggs. Yup, Easter potatoes. Axios’ Kelly Tyko has been covering the painting and dying of spuds this holiday season.

Kelly, what sparked this idea of Easter potatoes?

KELLY TYKO: Well, back in January when prices were the highest, there were a lot of memes going around. Such as due to high egg prices kids are gonna have to paint potatoes this year. Dying Easter eggs is so 2022 and 2023 we paint potatoes. So the potato industry, that kind of encouraged them to get in on the fun and so they started sharing the idea how to dye the potatoes like eggs, and want people to share their creations online.

NIALA: Can you actually dye a potato like an egg?

KELLY: Well, there are some food safe dyes that you can use. You can paint them with the skin on and if you use the food safe paints and the dyes, you can end up cooking them after the fun and then maybe using that for your Easter meal. And you might have some color in those potatoes.

NIALA: And do you think children will actually be hunting potatoes, there'll be a potato hunt instead of an Easter egg hunt?

KELLY: Because egg prices have retreated some it's not expected to become, you know, the replacement to Easter eggs. You'll have to just, um, watch out for those potatoes at the Easter egg hunt. But if you don't pick one of the egg potatoes up, um, you might be able to sprout something in your backyard. But be careful for leaving uncooked potatoes outside for dogs, because dogs and raw potatoes don't mix.

NIALA: That’s Axios’ Kelly Tyko. Thanks, Kelly.

KELLY: Thank you.

NIALA: That’s it for us today! I’m Niala Boodhoo - thanks for listening - stay safe and we’ll see you back here tomorrow morning.

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