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'The War Came to Us' offers reporter's perspective on Ukraine's fight against Russia


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Geoff Bennett: It's now nearly 18 months since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Tens of thousands of people have died as the brutal war grinds on.

But even before the total invasion, this war has been going on for nearly a decade.

Nick Schifrin speaks now with a journalist who's lived in Ukraine for many years.

Nick Schifrin: In the last decade, it's become clear that Ukraine's fate may very well help determine how the future is written, beginning in the 2013-2014 uprising that evicted a pro-Russian leader and became known as the Revolution of Dignity, the subsequent Russian land grab of Crimea and annexation by Moscow, then the Kremlin-provoked war in Eastern Ukraine, and, of course, more recently, the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

At stake throughout, the modern idea that borders cannot be redrawn by force, the survival of democracy in the post-Soviet space, and, in Ukraine's resistance, the changing face of warfare.

Few Americans have had more of a front row seat to that first draft of history than Christopher Miller, currently the Ukraine correspondent for The Financial Times, who has been reporting from the country for 13 years, and has just released a book, "The War Came To Us: Life and Death in Ukraine."

Christopher Miller, thanks very much. Welcome to the "NewsHour."

Christopher Miller, Author, "The War Came To Us: Life and Death in Ukraine": Pleasure to be here.

Nick Schifrin: The book begins and ends in the city that the world knows as Bakhmut, but you knew it as Artemivsk, its name when you arrived in 2010 as a Peace Corps volunteer.

In 2022, Bakhmut became the epicenter of the longest battle since the full-scale invasion. You visited your old apartment on the front line at some point in the last few months. And then you told friends who had fled the city: "The place we knew is gone forever."

How has the war that began in Ukraine's east in 2014 and, of course, continues in the full-scale of invasion changed the country forever?

Christopher Miller: Well, that's a big question.

In just about every way imaginable. It's now a country of millions of people that are essentially all at war. It's an existential fight that they are waging against a Russian invading force. This is a country filled with friends and people I know who have become fighters, soldiers, essentially.

They were once teachers. They worked for the government. They worked for NGOs. They were cab drivers, and now they have taken up arms to defend their country. It's a country that went from peace -- and not a perfect peace -- to war and been completely upended.

Nick Schifrin: And one that is more proud in its national identity than ever before?

Christopher Miller: You know, many Ukrainians have always been very prideful of their country, proud to be Ukrainians, but no more so than then right now, when they are a country more united than ever against a common foe, and I believe doing a very good job of defending their country on the front lines.

Nick Schifrin: For sure.

When you arrived in the Donbass as a Peace Corps volunteer so many years ago, you write that people there didn't think Kyiv cared very much about them or even considered them true Ukrainians.

Do you think, as you would later write in the book, that that provided an opening for Putin to launch the Russian invasion in Eastern Ukraine in 2014?

Christopher Miller: It did.

I think Putin found some fertile ground to exploit in 2014, which is why we saw some local Ukrainians take up arms against their own government and join these covert Russian forces, soldiers without insignia, and become a part of what the Russians presented at the time as a separatist uprising.

Nick Schifrin: And that invasion, of course, followed what we now call the Revolution of Dignity, the Euromaidan protests in Kyiv, that you covered extensively.

And you write about how those protests became so much more than what caused them, the then pro-Russian president deciding whether or not to be closer to the E.U. in terms of trade. How did those protests become much more about the identity of the country itself?

Christopher Miller: Yes, this was a revolution that began as a protest against the turn from the West toward Russia by the pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych.

And it was the violence, state violence, perpetrated by his security forces that transformed it into a revolution. This was a revolution that was bootstrapped using kitchen utensils, digging up paving stones to defend themselves against attacking police forces.

And it was actually that spirit of the Maidan that responded in 2014 to that first invasion of Eastern Ukraine and became the volunteer forces and later the official military forces, many of which we're now seeing in 2022 defending the country against regular Russian forces now invading the country.

Nick Schifrin: You write that, in the first days after the full-scale invasion, that a senior official admitted to you it was a really close call, that Moscow could have succeeded.

How close was it?

Christopher Miller: Very close, as close as a couple of gates around the presidential administration and a few cars moved in front of those gates to keep some of the Russian special forces that had managed to sneak into the city and take up positions inside of apartments in the government quarter.

This was a lot of luck on Ukraine's part. They were fortunate that the Russians bungled this invasion. They made a lot of bad decisions. They were using old maps en route to the city. They got lucky that volunteers and ordinary citizens stood up very quickly and took up arms to defend the capital.

A lot of the more experienced Ukrainian military forces were actually in the south and the east of the country, where they expected an invasion.

Nick Schifrin: And then the east, Bakhmut, the battle that has raged for so long that we talked about at the beginning.

When you saw the city the last time, what did it look like? Was it at all recognizable to where you used to live?

Christopher Miller: I could still make out cafes that I had been to.

I visited my old apartment buildings to see what shape they were in. It was a city without people. The only people on the streets were soldiers and military vehicles. And there's this moment that I wrote about in the book where I'm having a conversation with a soldier and they're digging trenches in the city center.

And we just stood there both, I think, taking in the moment and shaking our heads in disbelief, disbelief that it could happen decades later, trenches, World War I/World War II-style warfare in the middle of the city.

Nick Schifrin: And atrocities that we have seen so extensively throughout the country.

And you quote a poem from a prominent Ukrainian writer and poet, Oleksandr Irvanets, who fled the Russian massacre in European. And the poem is this: "I won't forgive anyone. We will overcome everything and endure."

Does that mean that the only true justice that Ukrainians see is victory?

Christopher Miller: It's really difficult for Ukrainians right now to think about any justice, any peace that doesn't see Vladimir Putin and his generals imprisoned or on trial facing justice for the atrocities they have committed.

They have lost family members. They have lost soldiers. They have lost homes. They have seen their cities completely razed to the ground. It's too much for them to consider anything less than a victory. And that's what they have said and shown they are willing to fight and die for.

Nick Schifrin: Christopher Miller.

The book is "The War Came To Us: Life and Death in Ukraine."

Thank you very much.

Christopher Miller: Thank you.

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