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Report from Kyiv: Facing Military Setbacks, Russia Is Increasingly Targeting Ukrainian Civilians

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The mayor of Kyiv has declared a 36-hour curfew after a series of Russian missile strikes hit residential areas of the capital of Ukraine on Tuesday. Meanwhile, talks are resuming today between Ukraine and Russia, and the prime ministers of the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovenia are traveling to Kyiv to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. We get an update from outside of Kyiv from Peter Zalmayev, director of the Eurasia Democracy Initiative, on the Russian invasion. “They’re not having any military successes, so they’re just bent on revenge and anger that they’re venting on civilians,” says Zalmayev. He says if Russian attacks continue on the same trend, Ukraine could see up to 50,000 civilians killed in the war, and that any agreement between the two countries will be flawed, as “the Russian side has shown that they cannot be trusted.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The mayor of Kyiv has declared a 35-hour curfew after a series of Russian missile strikes hit residential areas of Ukraine’s capital. At least two people died when a Russian missile hit a 16-story apartment complex. This comes as the prime ministers of the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovenia traveled to Kyiv to meet with the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky. Talks are also resuming today between Ukraine and Russia. On Monday, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres called for an immediate end to the war.

SECRETARY-GENERAL ANTÓNIO GUTERRES: Ukraine is on fire. The country is being decimated before the eyes of the world. The impact on civilians is reaching terrifying proportions. Countless innocent people, including women and children, have been killed. After being hit by Russian forces, roads, airports and schools lie in ruins. According to the World Health Organization, at least 24 health facilities have suffered attacks. Hundreds of thousands of people are without water or electricity. And with each passing hour, two things are increasingly clear. First, it keeps getting worse. Second, whatever the outcome, this war will have no winners, only losers.

AMY GOODMAN: U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres. We go now to Ukraine, where we’re joined by Peter Zalmayev, the director of the Eurasia Democracy Initiative, joining us from outside of Kyiv.

Peter, welcome to Democracy Now!

PETER ZALMAYEV: Thank you. Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: You have this emergency curfew that has just been imposed. What is it? Thirty-five, 36 hours. Can you describe what you’re experiencing right now in your community?

PETER ZALMAYEV: Well, the curfew being imposed by the mayor is definitely — is clearly designed to prevent from any provocations inside. You know, we now have information that weeks prior to the invasion, Russians have sent their diversionary groups, so these clandestine cells, to infiltrate the Ukrainian cities, particularly Kyiv. There have been a few dozen identified during the first phase of the war when there was an attack on Kyiv, an attempt to take Kyiv by force. Several of these, numbering in the hundreds, were neutralized, by which I mean destroyed. But the fear is that there’s still a lot of them there, and they will try to attack from the inside.

And so, Kyiv is living relatively — you know, considering that we have two, three rocket attacks per day now, it’s already getting normalized, the idea that the capital of Ukraine is getting rocket attacks on it, a few people die every day. It’s still not on the scale, thank god, of Mariupol, where there are thousands reported dead. So, overall, I would say that the situation is — there’s no panic necessarily. The steady flow of evacuees is always proceeding. But about a half of the prewar population of Kyiv remains, which is about 2 million people.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter, you were predicting that Putin would invade in early February, when most people were saying he wouldn’t dare do this at this extensive level of the whole country. Why did you think this? And talk about what exactly this means for the population of Ukraine. Of course, he expected, like Rumsfeld did when the U.S. invaded Iraq, to be met with flowers and applause. To say the least, this not only has happened, but it’s brought together perhaps a very fractured society.

PETER ZALMAYEV: Well, indeed, you know, Vladimir Putin’s miscalculation is pretty glaring. You know, he constantly is trying to poke America in the eyes with what he claims is its hypocrisy, such as going into Iraq under false pretenses in 2003 and then building unrealistic expectations, like you said, about how they would be greeted, such as greeted as liberators. Putin is — you know, whatever he claims about the U.S. misadventures in the Middle East, he’s repeating — he seems to be repeating the same mistakes. You know, he miscalculated the strength of the resistance, the morass that he would sink into and the willingness of Ukrainians to greet Russians as liberators. That has not panned out like that.

So, when I was saying in February that the invasion was coming, it was obviously clear that for Vladimir Putin to back down after having amassed 200,000 troops on the borders of Ukraine would have been political suicide, just as much as it is for him now to sort of roll back his troops is tantamount to, you know, political and also physical suicide almost, I would say. That’s why you hear this talk about the need to find an off-ramp for Vladimir Putin, so he can announce victory. That’s a separate subject for conversation, whether that should be happening.

When you talk about the — if you ask me about Ukrainian society, what it has done to the Ukrainian society, well, first of all, almost 3 million people have fled Ukraine. But just judging from what I’m seeing driving around — I’ve driven hundreds of miles around Ukraine in the last two, three weeks — I have not seen that level of national consciousness ever in my life. I mean, the only precedent for that would be the war of the World War II in 1940s. I mean, this is as black and white an issue for Ukrainians as it’s ever been, no shades of gray here. This is a war for liberation. It’s a war for freedom. I mean, normally in peaceful times, I would sort of shy away from these terms as too lofty, maybe almost cheesy, you know, if you’ll allow me. But, I mean, these are the terms in which we think right now. We look at the invading hordes, we call them “Orcs,” sort of like in the Tolkien language. We call Russia “Mordor.” It’s actually now accepted — I mean, you hear it from Russia, from Ukrainian TV presenters. This is sort of the semi-official way to describe what we’re seeing and the barbarity to which Vladimir Putin’s troops have resorted in bombing our city centers, our infrastructure. The damage is estimated upwards of $100 billion already. It is clear that they’re not having any military successes, so they’re just really — they’re just bent on revenge and anger that they’re venting on civilians.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Zalmayev, you actually are from Donetsk. Can you talk about what’s happening there?

PETER ZALMAYEV: You know, it was kind of quiet for a while, because — simply because the frontline there, having existed in place since 2014, was the most fortified. That’s why you see this incredible battle for Mariupol. I mean, I wouldn’t be at liberty to venture a guess how many fighters are still there, but the invading force that has encircled Mariupol is infinitely bigger, and yet they are not having — I mean, they’re killing civilians, but they’re not achieving their goal. They have yet to take a major population center anywhere in Ukraine, with the exception of Kherson, which every day you have sporadic pro-Ukrainian rallies there, and they can’t put them down.

So, coming back to Donetsk, it was relatively quiet, and then the quiet was shattered yesterday when a rocket apparently was blown off the skies and landed right smack in the center of the city, next to one of my apartments. I own several apartments, which have been sitting empty there this whole time. And one of them blew out all the windows in the apartment. The person who’s been watching over the apartments just called me and told me that, you know, it’s looking pretty bad. It was large devastation. And as many — we’re hearing as many as 20 people were killed. We’re not sure which rocket it was. A true fog of war situation. And so, here you go.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re hearing numbers as high as 20,000 dead in Mariupol, in the south. Is that possible?

PETER ZALMAYEV: Yes, I heard this, as well. I would doubt that figure. We’re talking definitely several thousand. The last I heard was 2,000 to 3,000. Twenty thousand may be an exaggeration, even though — you know, that’s shaky ground when you’re trying to question the figures by people who are there. So, I don’t believe it’s 20,000, but we’re definitely talking 3,000 or so. And if that is the case, and if the situation — if the trend sort of continues the same way, we are going to see the worst-case scenario that was actually mentioned by a German tabloid, Bild, right before the war, which actually, I’ll be honest with you, outraged me. I could not believe that this would be our reality, but actually it predicted as many as 50,000 civilians deaths. So far, I can’t tell you the — you know, we’re talking maybe up to 5,000 civilians deaths in the country. But considering that Vladimir Putin has not shown any decrease in appetite bombing us, I mean, you know, just God knows how much more casualties we will suffer.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Zalmayev, you mentioned the off-ramp for Putin. What do you see that could be? And what would be acceptable to the people of Ukraine?

PETER ZALMAYEV: Well, an off-ramp, obviously, he’s seeking — at least on paper, he’s seeking for — he’s seeking that Ukraine declare a neutral status, a sort of Finlandization — that’s sort of been bandied about, this term — and an official decision to stop pursuing NATO membership. I think those are very doable. I do not believe they’re really what have been motivating Vladimir Putin in Ukraine. I think it’s a very old-school, 19th century war of subjugation, war of land conquest, that we’re seeing from Vladimir Putin, the guy who does not use internet and is very much mired in his own kind of old-school thinking of military glory and conquest. But at least on paper, their official displeasure has been NATO expansion, as you know, all along. That is something Ukraine has already sent signs it’s willing to compromise on, and I think it is willing to announce it will be neutral and, you know, basically move away from NATO membership process.

But, once again, whether that will satisfy Vladimir Putin, I’m not sure, because also connected with it are security guarantees that Ukraine needs to get from Russia in return. In 1994, Budapest Memorandum was signed, according to which Ukraine would turn over its nuclear weapons in exchange for security guarantees. Well, we’re seeing now how much worth that paper was worth that it was written on, the Budapest Memorandum. So, what kind of security guarantees will Ukraine receive this time? Vladimir Putin wants to establish a new status quo, get more of Ukraine’s territory. Ideally, he wants to cut Ukraine off from all access to the sea and then start negotiating. Well, that’s not a viable construct for Ukraine. I do not think so. And Vladimir Putin, once again, keep in mind, whatever paper you sign, whatever agreement you reach, the Russian side has shown that it cannot be trusted.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter, you are a television host, and I’m wondering if you can talk about the meaning of what just happened in Moscow. You have the state TV employee, a longtime producer there, who stood up behind the presenter and held a “no war” sign, in English and Russian. She had issued, also had prepared in advance — her name is Marina Ovsyannikova — a statement where she was wearing a necklace that is red and white and blue, and blue and yellow, for the Ukraine and Russian colors. And she has disappeared. It seems that she has been arrested. It is not clear. People have not been in touch with her. The significance of this protest, and also of the mass Russian antiwar protests? What does that mean to you as a Ukrainian?

PETER ZALMAYEV: Well, it means quite a bit. You know, we are definitely worried about this lady, a journalist, our colleague. Keep in mind, Russia has just passed this draconian law that envisions 15 years in a prison term for just such actions as you mentioned by this reporter, 15 years in jail for daring to criticize the government and its conduct in Ukraine. Even calling it a war may land you in prison, simply because the Russian side refuses to call it what it is, and the official term for it is “special operation.”

I am doubtful as to this having necessarily a domino effect, even though since then we’ve heard one very well-known anchor on another channel has stepped down since. But as far as leading to a domino effect and also trying to overcome this informational blockade that Vladimir Putin has imposed on Russia, that is doubtful. That is a one-off, I think. And it actually led, in Ukraine, to suspicions about the motivation of this and who the owner of the channel is and how maybe they are trying to position themselves to win an indulgence in the West, to be able to flee to the West, to not have sanctions placed against them, you know, to point to this lady and say, “Well, see? This is what we did.” I mean, all kind of cynicism about this. I want to take this at its face value, and I would just say that what this lady did is really hard to understand for anyone who is not in Russia.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Zalmayev, I want to thank you for being with us, director of the Eurasia Democracy Initiative. Finally, we have just 10 seconds, but the significance of the prime ministers of Poland, Slovenia, as well as Czech Republic, coming to meet with Zelensky in Ukraine’s capital, where you are, in Kyiv?

PETER ZALMAYEV: An incredible vote of confidence in Kyiv, in Ukraine, in the ability of Ukrainians to hold their capital, to defend it, a show of support. We need as much of that as we can.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Zalmayev, thank you so much for being with us, hosting a television program in Ukraine, based just outside of Kyiv.

Coming up, Joshua Yaffa is with us, of The New Yorker. He has just left Ukraine. His latest piece, “What the Russian Invasion Has Done to Ukraine.” He’ll take us on his journey. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “The Willow Board,” a Ukrainian folk song performed by Ukrainian violinists sheltering from the war in basement shelters around Ukraine, and they are joined on Zoom by professional violinists from around the world, each with their little flag of their country. The collaboration included these videos sent by 94 violinists from 29 countries in just 48 hours. For our radio listeners, go to and check it out.

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What’s Next for Putin? New Yorker’s Joshua Yaffa on Ukraine’s Resistance & Russian Antiwar Protests

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