Facing Military Setbacks, Russia Is Increasingly Targeting Ukrainian Civilians

After a series of Russian missile attacks on residential areas in Kiev’s capital, the mayor of Kyiv declared a 36-hour curfew. Talks between Russia & Ukraine are continuing today, and the prime minsters of the Czech Republic and Poland are travelling to Kyiv for a meeting with President Volodymyr Zelesky. Peter Zalmayev of the Eurasia Democracie Initiative gives us an update 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.”

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. A Russian missile struck a 16-story apartment block, killing at least two people. This happened as the prime ministers from the Czech Republic, Poland, and Slovenia traveled to Kyiv for a meeting with Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president. Talks between Russia and Ukraine are also being resumed today. On Monday, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres called for an immediate end to the war.

SECRETARYGENERAL ANTÓNIO GUTERRES:Ukraine is on fire. The world is watching as the country is destroyed. The effects on civilians have reached terrifying levels. Numerous innocent people, including children and women, have been killed. After being attacked by Russian forces, roads and schools are in ruins. According to the World Health Organization at least 24 hospitals have been attacked. Hundreds of thousands remain without access to electricity and water. With each passing hour, two things become increasingly obvious. First, it keeps getting worse. Second, no matter what the outcome, this war will have winners and 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, you are most welcome Democracy Now!

PETER ZALMAYEV:We are grateful. Amy, thank you.

AMY GOODMAN:This emergency curfew has 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. We now know that the Russians sent their diversionary group, so these clandestine cells to infiltrate the Ukrainian cities, especially Kyiv, weeks before the invasion. A few dozen were identified in the first phase of war, when Kyiv was attacked and attempted to take Kyiv by force. Many of these, numbering in hundreds, were neutralized. 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 stream is continuing to flow of evacuees. About half of the prewar population in Kyiv, which was approximately 2 million people, is still there.

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 that? Talk about what this means for Ukraine’s population. He expected, just like Rumsfeld when the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, to be greeted 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 is constantly trying to poke America with what he claims to be its hypocrisy. He went into Iraq in 2003 under false pretenses, and then set unrealistic expectations about how they would receive them, such as being greeted like 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. He miscalculated the strength and willingness of Ukrainians in welcoming Russians as liberators. This has not worked out as planned.

When I said in February that the invasion was imminent, it was clear that Vladimir Putin’s decision to withdraw from the border of Ukraine after having amassed 200,000 troops was political suicide. It is also tantamount to political and physical suicide almost for him to roll back his troops. 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. That would be the only precedent, which I believe is the World War II war in the 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 struggle 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. These are the terms that we think in right now, I mean. 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 to the infrastructure and cities has already been estimated at $100 billion. 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 are actually 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, I returned to Donetsk and it was quiet. But yesterday, a rocket apparently flew off the sky and landed right in the middle of the city, near one of my apartments. I have several apartments which have been empty since the beginning. One of them blew all the windows out of 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 a great deal of destruction. 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 warfare situation. Here you go.

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

PETER ZALMAYEV:Yes, I also heard it. I doubt that number. We’re talking definitely several thousand. Last time I heard, there were 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. It predicted that as many as 50,000 civilian deaths would occur. I couldn’t believe it. So far, I can’t tell you the — you know, we’re talking maybe up to 5,000 civilians deaths in the country. But, Vladimir Putin’s insatiable appetite to bomb us is a sign that we are likely to sustain more casualties.

AMY GOODMAN:Peter Zalmayev, I noticed that you mentioned the off ramp for Putin. What do you think that could look like? And what would you consider acceptable for the peoples 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. These are very possible, I think. 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 on paper, their displeasure is evident. NATOAs you all know, expansion has been a constant goal. 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 NATOMembership 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, the Budapest Memorandum was signed. It stated that Ukraine would surrender its nuclear weapons in return to security guarantees. Well, we’re seeing now how much worth that paper was worth that it was written on, the Budapest Memorandum. What kind of security guarantees will Ukraine be given this time? Vladimir Putin wants to establish a new status quo, get more of Ukraine’s territory. In his ideal world, he would want to cut Ukraine from all sea access and then start to negotiate. Well, that’s not a viable construct for Ukraine. I don’t think so. Vladimir Putin, remember, no matter what paper you sign or agreement you make, the Russian side has proven that it is not to 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. She has vanished. It appears that she has been taken into custody. It is unclear. People have not been in contact with her. What is the significance this protest and the mass Russian antiwar marches? What does this mean for you as a Ukrainian citizen?

PETER ZALMAYEV: Well, it means quite a bit. We are concerned about this lady, a journalist, and our colleague. Remember that Russia just passed a draconian law which could see you spend 15 years in prison for such actions as the one you described by this reporter. It also allows for 15 years imprisonment for criticizing the government’s 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. However, it is not clear if this will lead to a domino effect or if Russia will be able to overcome the informational blockade Vladimir Putin has placed on them. This is a one-off. 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. This is what I think it is worth. I will admit that the actions of this lady are difficult to comprehend for those not from Russia.

AMY GOODMAN:Peter Zalmayev, thank you so much for being with me, director of 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:It is a remarkable vote of confidence in Kyiv, Ukraine, in their ability to hold their capital and defend it. We need as much as we can.

AMY GOODMAN:Peter Zalmayev: Thank you so much, hosting a television show in Ukraine, based just outside Kyiv.

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


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. These videos were sent by 94 violinists in 29 countries within 48 hours. Listeners to our radio stations can visit democracynow.org to check it out.