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CNN One Thing

You’ve been overwhelmed with headlines all week – what's worth a closer look? One Thing takes you into the story and helps you make sense of the news everyone's been talking about. Each Sunday, host David Rind interviews one of CNN’s world-class reporters to tell us what they've found – and why it matters. From the team behind CNN 5 Things.

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The Month That May Have Changed the War in Ukraine
CNN One Thing
Oct 9, 2022

Over the past few weeks, Ukrainian forces have made major gains in the south and east of the country, taking back territory Russia claims it is annexing. It comes as President Vladimir Putin’s partial mobilization order has been met with protests back home. We examine what Putin’s next move might be and hear from Ukrainian residents emerging from life under Russian occupation. 

Recorded on October 4, 2022

Guest: Nick Paton Walsh, CNN International Security Editor

Episode Transcript
David Rind (Host)
It's been more than eight months since Russia invaded Ukraine. I know a lot has happened since then, but I do think it's worth taking a look at the state of play. You know who controls what? Remember, since those early days after Ukraine stopped Russia from taking Kyiv, the map has more or less looked like this: Ukraine controlled the north and west and Russia had the upper hand in the south and east. Most military experts were predicting a grinding stalemate was up next with either side making only incremental gains at any one time. Well, over the past few weeks, the battlefield momentum seems to have firmly shifted in favor of the home team. This week on the show, we're going to Ukraine, where CNN international security editor Nick Paton Walsh has been watching a remarkable Ukrainian counteroffensive play out. We talk about why it's been met with such little resistance, what Russian President Vladimir Putin's next move could be and what the road ahead looks like for Ukrainians emerging from life under Russian occupation. From CNN, this is One Thing I'm David Rind.
David Rind (Host)
Hey Nick, where are you right now?
Nick Paton Walsh (Guest)
We're in Kryvyi Rih at the moment, which is towards the southern part of Ukraine's counteroffensive.
David Rind (Host)
And remind me, how long have you been in-country on this current reporting trip?
Nick Paton Walsh (Guest)
So far, we've been here about three weeks.
David Rind (Host)
Gotcha. And I should say we're talking on Tuesday, October 4th. And it really seems to me, Nick, like the three weeks that you've been in the country has been a really pivotal one, both in Ukraine and in Russia. Can you just catch us up on what's been happening?
Nick Paton Walsh (Guest)
I think the last month has been the most decisive for the war since its beginning. For multiple reasons. The first one is the completely undeniable fact that Russia's army has seen a rout. Now it seems on three separate fronts.
Victor Blackwell
Let's turn now to the stunning battlefield transformation happening in Ukraine...
Nick Paton Walsh (Guest)
It's extraordinary, to be honest, it began. Ukraine's second city of Kharkiv, where a pretty smart tactical plan by Ukraine interrupted the supply lines for that whole area, causing Russian troops to just flee for vast amounts of territory that they had been fighting intensely for.
Alisyn Camerota
And you can see here, they're getting hugs from locals and little resistance from retreating Russian troops.
Nick Paton Walsh (Guest in Field)
A ghostly silence here apart from occasional shelling and small arms fire. And it is so much of this town utterly destroyed. And then the Ukrainians pushed on towards the east where we just saw we were the first television crew into Lyman, which was another strategic supply hub for the Russian presence in Donetsk and Luhansk in the east. And they well, they pulled out of there, too.
Ana Cabrera
And today, for the first time since this war began, Ukrainian units have actually crossed into the Luhansk region. And this is an area that has been primarily almost 100% in Russian control.
Nick Paton Walsh (Guest in Field)
And then finally, we're hearing news in the southern area of Ukraine, which is a huge amount of territory, the strategically very important for Russia to Ukraine reporting some pretty substantial advances down there as well. So on three fronts now the Ukrainian military are moving forward.
Pamela Brown
And according to a CNN analysis of exclusive data from the Institute for the Study of War, seven months into this invasion, Russia controls less territory than it did in the initial days of the war.
Nick Paton Walsh (Guest in Field)
What's happening separately to that is a kind of it's a bizarre parallel non-reality that we're hearing from Moscow.
Russian President Vladimir putin
(Speaking Russian) We have become stronger because we are together. Behind us is the truth and indeed the power. And that means victory. Victory will be ours. (Speaking Russian)
Nick Paton Walsh (Guest in Field)
They announced that they will be holding sham referendums in four areas of Ukraine that they have occupied only partially. We knew when those announced what the results would be and they were, you know, fake overwhelmingly held at the barrel of a gun, it seems, and overwhelmingly pro those areas, saying they wanted to join Russia. And that now as a process is being rubberstamped after a ceremony in the Kremlin on Friday, where the leaders appointed by Moscow in those occupied areas sign bits of paper. And now we're also seeing the slow lurch forwards of one of the most substantial and controversial, possibly very damaging policy decisions of Vladimir Putin's 22 years effectively leading Russia.
Erin Burnett
Russian President Vladimir Putin today ordering a military draft.
Nick Paton Walsh (Guest in Field)
And that's decision to partially mobilize hundreds of thousands of ordinary Russian civilians. It seems the initial call-up was a reservist, those of military experience, those with special skills.
Melissa Bell
On television, the hundreds of thousands being mobilized by President Putin are well-equipped. In reality, their videos on social media tell a different tale.
Nick Paton Walsh (Guest in Field)
But it seemed like ordinary people just being dragged off the street in some instances to.
Melissa Bell
We were officially told that there would be no training before being sent to the combat zone. This recruit says, we had no shooting, no tactical training, no theoretical training, nothing.
Nick Paton Walsh (Guest in Field)
And the horror stories of no equipment, nowhere to sleep, no medical assistance are pouring in and are causing dissent across all of Russia and as many as 200,000 Russians to try and leave Russia. In fact, as I list all these things to you now, it's just staggering what the last month has done in this war. But it's left extraordinary dissent inside Russia, a moment that Vladimir Putin, I think, has experienced at all in terms of dissent, criticism of how the war is being run, bursting out into the public among Russia's elite, criticism how the partial mobilization is being run, also from state paid Russian media personalities. And so we're in this incredible moment here where Ukraine are absolutely winning, regaining territory at a pretty fast pace. Russia is utterly struggling to reverse that. And the only tool that appears left in Vladimir Putin's box at the moment is the threat of nuclear force, which he's been dangling for a while. But there's a lot of concern about where we go in the weeks ahead, but very little doubt that Ukraine is continuing to move forwards.
David Rind (Host)
Right. I want to ask about the nuclear part of this, because it does seem like every couple of weeks the issue comes up, although it feels especially relevant now that Russia has annexed these four areas of Ukraine, what would happen if Ukraine carried out an attack on one of these areas and let's say it was using weapons supplied by the West or the U.S. like what are the ramifications of that?
Nick Paton Walsh (Guest in Field)
We don't actually know, to be honest. I mean, the theory that analysts had when Russia said they were going to annex these areas and make them part of Russian territory as it plays into Russia's nuclear doctrine or its military doctrine, where they can essentially say, well, listen, you're now attacking Russia proper. And so the fear had been that this would essentially involve nuclear blackmail. And a lot of Russian officials were making very bold nuclear threats. Vladimir Putin was slightly more caged when he spoke about that particular issue. But the threat was essentially very clear that we're going to say this is Russia, and if you try and touch it, then we could, you know, do the unthinkable. But that's sort of collapsed a little bit. I mean, this remarkable series of comments from a Kremlin spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, where he was pushed on the matter of two of these areas, Kherson and Zapohirizhia. And they were asked, look, how much of these areas, because they don't control all of it and they're losing bits of on Kherson as I speak. How much of these areas do you consider to be Russia now under your notion of expanded Russia under the annexation you've done? And he said they were continuing to consult with the local population about that. So he couldn't really give an answer.
David Rind (Host)
Isn't that what the referendum are for.
Nick Paton Walsh (Guest in Field)
What he thinks so. Right. I mean, the fact that you have to continue to consult after you've allegedly consulted them once before. And, you know, we don't have to spend too much time debating the legitimacy of something that has no legitimacy.
David Rind (Host)
Nick Paton Walsh (Guest in Field)
But the notion of the policy here was you shouldn't touch these areas. Now the policy is, well, let you know what those areas would be down the line. The threat hasn't gone away and the risk hasn't gone away. But day by day, I begin to wonder quite what the Kremlin's policy actually is or if. They are just day by day having to alter it because of the reality on the ground.
David Rind (Host)
So, Nick, before the break, you were talking about the reality on the ground, and that seems to include Ukraine going into these cities and small towns once held by Russia and liberating them, pushing the Russians back. I know you and your team have been able to go into these places that Ukraine has taken back and talk to the people there. What are they saying about what this process has been like?
Nick Paton Walsh (Guest in Field)
It was one scene that really stood out for me in Lyman, which is, you know, very significant for Russia because it's a railway hub. And it's just crazy to think that in 2022, wars are being fought over railways. I mean, this is how Russia still wages war. It needs rail stock to get its stuff around.
Nick Paton Walsh (Guest in Field)
Well, this is what it was all about. The central railway hub here now in Ukrainian hands and devastated by the fighting. It had been heavily hit. There were two women, I would say, put them in their fifties. We met.
Women (Ukrainian)
Nick Paton Walsh (Guest in Field)
And they were very upset because one said to me, look, to paraphrase her, I take one hat off, I take another hat on, and I'm just unable to kind of keep my mind around who's in control of this town right now.
Women (Ukrainian)
Nick Paton Walsh (Guest in Field)
Malia and her friend next to her said that her husband had been arrested by the Ukrainians when they came in. Not unusual because, you know, a lot of the time when these places are occupied, there are sympathizers in those towns who assist the occupation. But the kind of exhaustion and emotion that they were telling us was just, I think, key to remind you that, you know, there are people caught between Ukraine losing control of a place, Russia taking over a place, Ukraine taking control back. And they're caught in basements just listening to the constant shelling while these pieces of territory change hands.
Women (Ukrainian)
Nick Paton Walsh (Guest in Field)
There was one lady called Anna who we saw walking on her own through Sviatogirsk, which used to be a very beautiful monastery, a kind of spa town, a tourist resort that eight years ago, during the war beginnings, I stayed in a quiet, tranquil area to get away from some of the fighting each evening.
Nick Paton Walsh (Guest in Field)
And she said, look, I had this moment one day where I was at my door leaving into the courtyard, and the Russians were shooting at something, maybe each other by mistake that she didn't really know what was it about. But they thought she was a threat. And so they came towards her door, she closed the door, somebody tried to pull it open and she eventually let go, fell down what she thought was a staircase. But there were no stairs into the basement in the dark. And then the soldier fired into the darkness, trying to hit her.
Nick Paton Walsh (Guest)
This is a 73 year old woman lying on her face in a basement on her own and the strength of these people still carrying on. She was dragging two large branches of potential firewood behindher just to heat some tea. I mean, it's it's just utterly bleak. And it's just each time we go into these liberated places, we see people in this utterly desolate state carrying with them traumatic burdens of the last months or so.
David Rind (Host)
It's just completely harrowing and scary. So I guess, Nick, where does that leave us now as winter is almost upon us and as Russia continues to struggle? Is there any scenario where things change even further? Or is it just going to be more pain and suffering for all these people caught in the middle of this push and pull of territory that we've been seeing?
Nick Paton Walsh (Guest)
Well, I think that's the other question people have, too, about this is where's the room for diplomacy? But from the start, there have been some fairly wise minds saying, look, if you look at how Russia does diplomacy, it's not often looking for an actual political solution. It's often just buying time so it can regroup militarily or continue bluntly prosecuting its military goals. We've seen that a lot in other conflicts Russia's been involved in since the annexation. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky passed decree saying that he would not negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, not suggesting that there's somebody else in Russia he might negotiate with on behalf of Putin. But I think essentially ruling out talks until Putin leaves power. The Kremlin responded in kind, saying that we won't talk to Zelensky. But to be honest, diplomacy at this point when there's a war raging on battlefields that Ukraine is no doubt winning at this point, diplomacy for Kyiv seems slightly difficult to sustain. Plus, why, if you're Russia, are you mobilizing hundreds of thousands of your own civilians if you're also simultaneously trying to find a means to end the war? At this point.
Erica Hill
In Ukraine's Zapohirzhia with another round of Russian strikes this morning, one woman was killed. Seven more people are trapped in the rubble, we're told.
Nick Paton Walsh (Guest)
The pace of Ukraine's advance you can feel on the. Roads here it's hour by hour, they move forward.
Nick Paton Walsh (Guest)
I'm sure at some point there may be a moment in which both sides say, how do we win this down? But it isn't now.
David Rind (Host)
Hmm. Nick, thanks very much for the perspective and stay safe out there.
Nick Paton Walsh (Guest)
Thank you.
David Rind (Host)
One thing is a production of CNN audio. This episode was produced by Paola Ortiz and me. David Rind Matt Dempsey is our production manager. Faiz Jamil is our senior producer and Greg Peppers is our supervising producer. Special thanks this week to Natalie Gallon and thanks to you for listening. We really do appreciate it. We'll be back next Sunday. Talk to you then.