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“A Stalemate and Attritional Grind”: Journalist Luke Mogelson on 2 Years of Russia’s War in Ukraine

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We speak with The New Yorker war correspondent Luke Mogelson about the war in Ukraine, where the government has just passed a controversial bill that expands military conscription and cracks down on draft dodgers in an effort to replenish the depleted ranks of the army, more than two years since Russia launched its invasion. Military leaders have warned that Russian forces outnumber Ukrainian troops tenfold in the east. Mogelson says the Ukrainian military ranks are filled with “predominantly working-class men from rural areas or smaller villages,” while people in Kyiv and other large cities, where the elites live, can more easily avoid the full impact of the war. “You can really feel the gap between the two worlds widening,” says Mogelson, adding that most people realize the war cannot be sustained indefinitely and that “at some point there needs to be a negotiation” to end the fighting. Mogelson is the winner of this year’s prestigious George Polk Award for magazine reporting for his article “Two Weeks at the Front in Ukraine.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

Ukraine has passed a contested bill overhauling the military draft as a general warned lawmakers Russian forces outnumbered Ukrainian troops tenfold in the east. The new measures seek to increase troop numbers by narrowing exemptions from military service, requiring eligible men to update their draft data with authorities, increasing compensation for volunteers and allowing some people with convictions to serve. It also does not set an upper limit for wartime military service. The lawmakers, however, were forced to remove some of the harshest draft dodging penalties after public backlash.

The measure comes over two years into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and as Russian forces step up their attacks. Russia launched over 40 missiles and 40 drones at Ukrainian energy sources and critical infrastructure overnight Thursday, destroying power plants and underground gas storage facilities in five regions across Ukraine, including the largest power-generating plant in the Kyiv region.

For more, we’re joined by Luke Mogelson, The New Yorker magazine’s award-winning war correspondent. He is winning this year’s prestigious George Polk Award, that’s being out today — given out today in New York, for magazine reporting for his article “Two Weeks at the Front in Ukraine,” for which he was embedded with Ukrainian troops. This is his third George Polk Award in four years. His new investigation is headlined “Battling Under a Canopy of Drones.” He’s based in France, where he joins us from now.

Luke, congratulations on these awards. Thank you so much for being with us again. Why don’t we start off with your latest piece, “Battling Under a Canopy of Drones”? Why don’t you lay out where you were in Ukraine and what’s happening there today?


I was embedded with an assault unit to the east of Kupyansk in the northeast of Ukraine. And it’s an access on the front that is under a lot of Russian pressure recently. Kupyansk is a city that’s been heavily bombarded for months, and it was evacuated. The government ordered a mandatory evacuation back in August. And since then, the situation has just kind of deteriorated on the frontline trenches to the east of the city.

And the unit I was with was a contingent of the 1st Separate Assault Battalion. And they are cast by the General Staff to shore up sections of the front that are in danger of collapse or to retake segments that have already been lost to the Russians and then to hand them back over to the regular Ukrainian infantry and move on to the next area on the front that needs their — that requires the same support from them. And so they’ve been really busy lately, especially since the failure of last year’s Ukrainian counteroffensive to achieve a significant breakthrough. And basically, it’s just been ongoing relentless pressure from the Russian military all along the front since that time.

AMY GOODMAN: The subtitle of your piece, “Battling Under a Canopy of Drones,” “The commander of one of Ukraine’s most skilled units sent his men on a dangerous mission that required them to outmaneuver a swarm of aerial threats.” So, explain. Bring us to the area and what these men were dealing with, what’s happening generally right now in Ukraine. But tell us the story of what they were doing.

LUKE MOGELSON: Sure. Well, they were tasked with recapturing a village called Tabaivka. And in order to do that, they had to, essentially, surround, flank and attack from behind a group of Russian forces. And they had to do it without being spotted by drones, Russian drones, which is really difficult now because they’re everywhere, and not just regular surveillance drones, which have been a feature of the war from its early days, but now, especially in the last six months, there’s a new kind of drone that both the Ukrainians and the Russians have been fielding called FPVs, or first-person view drones. And they’re kind of small, easily produced, very light and maneuverable drones that the pilots control with these kind of virtual reality-looking like goggles, video goggles. And they can fly into trenches. They can fly into dugouts. They can go into buildings. They can chase down fleeing vehicles. They can follow squads and individual soldiers on foot and crash into them. And they’re typically deployed as kamikaze drones, so they’ll have a payload of explosives attached to them, so that when they do just connect with their targets, they can explode them with like extremely lethal precision. And so, that has just rendered all troop movements along the front extremely difficult and dangerous, especially in vehicles.

So, for a mission like this that the 1st Assault Battalion was conducting, they actually had to wait until there was weather that impeded both the Russians and the Ukrainians from using drones. And in this case, because it was the winter, that meant snow. So they waited for a big whiteout blizzard and then went into this area called Tabaivka on foot in the snow without any overhead surveillance or any option for medevac or other kind of support if they got into trouble. So, it was a really tough and dangerous mission, and the kind of mission that only a few units in the Ukrainian military now are capable of performing, including these guys.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about this latest news, Ukraine passing a contested bill overhauling the military draft as a general warned lawmakers Russian forces outnumbered Ukrainian troops tenfold in the east, the new measures seeking to increase troop numbers by narrowing exemptions from military service, requiring eligible men to update their draft data with authorities, increasing compensation for volunteers, allowing some people with convictions to serve, among other things. Can you talk about who is fighting on the front, and who is back in Kyiv and the rest of Ukraine?

LUKE MOGELSON: Yeah. I mean, to the extent that one can generalize, in my experience, which is anecdotal, but I have spent a fair amount of time on the front and with frontline units, it’s predominantly working-class men from rural areas or smaller villages, where the draft is being more aggressively — more aggressively carried out than in places like Kyiv, where the Ukrainian elite and wealthier and more educated classes and citizens tend to live, or Lviv or Odesa. And certainly, in the actual trenches — because you have to keep in mind, there’s the military, and then there’s the army, and then there’s, within the army, the units that are actually in the trenches, which tend to be infantrymen. And those guys, certainly, I would say, are much more — have a much higher proportion of lower-class men and lower-economic-status Ukrainians.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, you have this contested bill, because it would require more people who are in more comfortable areas of Ukraine. You write about how people in the capital and other places are more and more comfortable, people on the frontlines plunged into a greater and greater hell.

LUKE MOGELSON: Yeah, I mean, you can really feel the gap between the two worlds widening, because the frontline is just becoming more and more lethal, more and more miserable and difficult to maintain. And meanwhile, Kyiv, Lviv, Dnipro, places like this, are becoming, in a lot of ways, more normal, at least for now. You know, once the air defenses start giving out, because they’re already being depleted and not replaced, that could change. But these days, Kyiv is — it’s easy to forget the war in Kyiv.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about how the Ukrainian government is limiting coverage of the war. And you’ve said yourself that Ukrainian soldiers desire to share their experiences with journalists, despite official restrictions.

LUKE MOGELSON: Yeah, of course. I mean, it’s always like that. And by the way, just in reference to your last question, it’s not just Ukraine where you have typically poorer and less educated citizens doing most of the fighting. I mean, that’s the case in any country in any war that I’ve experienced, including America, certainly America during the “global war on terrorism.”

AMY GOODMAN: Right. And you’ve served in Afghanistan and Syria. I mean, I say “served.” You’ve written about, you know, the U.S. invasion in Iraq, as well.

LUKE MOGELSON: Yeah, and it’s the same. It’s the same with regards to the coverage. Soldiers on the front are always — almost always eager to have their stories told, their names recorded, what they’re doing, what they’re suffering, what they’re living through chronicled and witnessed. It’s extremely difficult to fight a war, and it’s even more difficult to do that, to fight a war, in obscurity, I think.

And so, in my experience, frontline soldiers are always happy to have journalists around. It’s the brass, it’s the press officers, the public affairs officers, the colonels and above, back in the rear, who tend to — tend to obfuscate and create obstacles for the press, because they’re more interested in — you know, they’re less interested in an honest portrayal of the reality, and more in a kind of — in political narratives — again, not just in Ukraine, but in any war, with any government.

AMY GOODMAN: If there isn’t a negotiation, do you see any end in sight, Luke Mogelson, to what you’ve described as this war of attrition?

LUKE MOGELSON: Well, the end would be one side or the other winning. And the way that it’s going, that would probably be Russia. So, no. I mean, I think everybody understands that at some point there needs to be a negotiation, absolutely. And the soldiers understand that and are very forthright and honest about that fact.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Luke Mogelson, I want to thank you for being with us, longtime war correspondent for The New Yorker, has reported from Ukraine, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq. We’ll link to your new piece, “Battling Under a Canopy of Drones.” Today, though he’s in France, he’s receiving the prestigious George Polk Award for his piece “Two Weeks at the Front in Ukraine.” It’s his third George Polk Award in four years.

When we come back, Part 2 of our conversation with the prominent Israeli international law professor Neve Gordon on surveillance of Palestinians in Gaza and Israel’s unprecedented assault. Back in 20 seconds.

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